Son! (My Journey to Jerry Reed)


In 1986, I was a freshman at The University of Texas and had just undergone something akin to a religious awakening after hearing a little-known local guitarist named Eric Johnson. I was ravenously learning dumbed-down versions of every song I could off his debut record Tones and going to hear him in concert at every chance.

My friends and I were listening to him at the Austin Opry House late one night when he switched off the distortion pedal and proceeded to play a magnificent country instrumental that left us all practically in tears of astonished joy. I remember him calling it “Tribute to …” to … to someone or other. I couldn’t quite remember the name because he had said it before the song, but I thought the initials were J.R.

It’s a reminder of how long ago this was that I couldn’t just pull it up on my phone with a Google search that guessed the title before I could finish typing it. Nor could I look it up on the internet when I got home because, of course, said internet did not exist. In those days of yore you got tipped off to great new music by phone calls from buddies, from scanning magazine racks (which is how we discovered Eric), from late-night conversations at Whataburger, from concert reviews printed in these things called newspapers. That is to say, if you didn’t hear a title clearly the first time, you weren’t guaranteed immediate or even eventual clarity.

The 1986 magazine cover that started it all.

Moreover, Eric has always had a practice of playing songs in concert years before he records them. (Never one to rush in, he would not commit this particular composition to a recorded medium for two more decades, when at long last he included it on his 2005 record Bloom.)

During the winter break, I returned from Austin to my hometown of McAllen and erelong found myself at La Plaza Mall sifting the wares of the only music store in the greater metropolitan area, Musicland. There, I made my way back to the cassette wall and thenceforth to the country section, a place I had not visited since my “kicker phase” in junior high school. I located the R’s and began digging for the person to whom Eric had made such a magnificent sonic tribute, for surely his recordings would be life changing. Remembering the initials as J.R., I soon was walking excitedly to the cashier with purchase in hand: The Greatest Hits of … Jim Reeves.

I returned home to my parents’ house and with nervous anticipation tore the cellophane off the box and popped the cassette into my tiny silver jam box, pressed play, and waited. A lush string section swooned into motion and a gentle baritone voice began to croon sentimental lyrics from the mid-century. OK, I thought. Artists can be multifaceted. Patience is the better part of valor. I’ll wait for the guitar solo. It never came. The second song began, more mellow and devoid of guitar riffs than the first. At one point there might have even been a warbling organ solo.

I began using the fast-forward button to scan each track, hoping against ever-receding hope that the very next song would be a shredding guitar instrumental. When the final song, titled “Is It Really Over,” really was over, I conceded defeat. I had opened the package and played the tape; there was no returning it to Musicland. I shook my head. With a deep sigh I chunked the tape into a junk drawer and put my Tones cassette back in. To this day I harbor an irrational, undeserved bitterness toward “Gentleman Jim Reeves.”

I do not remember just when I learned the true object of Eric’s tribute, but it was several years later, and probably after hearing the song two or three more times in concert, listening ever harder to Eric’s introduction of it. Yes, it was clear now. It was “Tribute to … Jerry Reed.”

I knew a Jerry Reed, of course. We all did. But he wasn’t really a guitar player. He was a supporting actor in low-brow comedies. He was “Snow Man” in Smokey and the Bandit. Oh, I knew he was a recording artist, but he was mainly a singer, right? Or more like a proto-rapper, speaking the words to as many songs as he sang. At any event, he had way more in common with Ray Stevens (“Guitarzan,” “The Streak”) than he did with the cerebral and virtuosic Eric Johnson. Reed was a novelty act. Upon discussion, my buddies and I remained firmly convicted that Eric was referencing some other, lesser-known Jerry Reed, probably some picker from the 1940s long forgotten by the mainstream, not this over-the-top hayseed comedian.

The epiphany came about 1992, when I came across an album by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, and there it was, visual confirmation, Jerry Reed, the Snow Man, on the CD cover. These two Jerry Reeds were one and the same person. I’ll be damned. I mildly enjoyed the Chet Atkins collaboration, Sneakin’ Around, but there was not much on this record to commend him as an axe god. It was highly produced easy-listening country, with a lot of “We’re so old now!” banter between the two. I didn’t get it. (It’s more endearing to me now than it was then.)

As the years rolled on, I moved from electric guitar to nearly exclusively playing acoustic, and became enthralled with the solo-acoustic master Tommy Emmanuel. As I read and listened to interviews with Tommy, I learned that his principal influences were Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and … Jerry Reed. He even named one of his songs “Ol’ Brother Hubbard,” after Jerry’s real surname. It was confirmed. All roads led back to Jerry Reed, the one I had grown up knowing only as a clownish redneck, folding up his straw cowboy hat and yelling “WHEN YOU HOT … YOU HOT!!!”


Jerry as featured in Scooby Doo


Finally, and with the awesome empowerment of YouTube, I turned my attention squarely upon this late man from Atlanta, he who had figured in popular culture one way and in music history another. What was it about his playing that had such a deep effect on virtually all of my musical heroes?

As I started to explore his catalog I discovered that there were not two Jerry Reeds, but three. The first was the one I had always known, the one who paid the bills with the talking blues and basically a country comedy act: “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft,” “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” “Amos Moses,” and “East Bound and Down.”

The second Jerry Reed, ironically enough, was not far removed at all from Gentleman Jim Reeves. This one, more in evidence on his earlier work, was earnest, had barely any accent at all, and layered his songs with the “Music City” sound fashionable in Nashville in the 60s and early 70s — lush string sections, drowning reverb, warbling female back-up singers, and plenty of extraneous instrumental layers (I need more harpsichord!!!), all courtesy of the producer who discovered him, Chet Atkins. This Jerry’s lyrics spoke earnestly of love and of life, as in “Today Is Mine”:

When the sun came up this morning
I took the time to watch it rise
And when its beauty struck the darkness from the sky
I thought how small and unimportant all my troubles seem to be
And how lucky, another day belongs to me …

Then, there was the third Jerry Reed, the one I had been searching for, off and on, for three decades, and had finally found, present but widely dispersed among the Scooby Doo cameos and Smokey and the Bandit clips. This Jerry was nothing less than a musical savant, and now I heard the source of all the musical references accruing down the years. Now I could hear the influential runs and chord structures curated in Eric’s “Tribute” and in Tommy’s covers. This Jerry Reed had dexterity, yes, but his real gift was a seemingly effortless mastery of and blending of country and funk. To achieve this, he shifted with endless creativity between pentatonic and mixolydian modes. He would relentlessly work and rework double-stop runs, deftly forging the sickest, funkiest breaks in the history of the genre, endlessly massaging the flat-5, flat-7, and minor-to-major 3rd blues notes, ingenious counterpoints that featured simultaneously ascending and descending lines, chromatically and rhythmically building up monuments to funkiness and then harmonically breaking them down piece by piece just as deliciously. The best, most representative works of this Jerry are “Honkin’,” “Jiffy Jam,” “Pickie, Pickie, Pickie,” “Swingin’ ’69,” “Alabama Jubilee,” “The Claw,” and not one but two completely different songs both titled “Struttin’.”

True geniuses usually are not fully aware of their gift, and there’s a telling vignette I love related by Craig Dobbins, author The Guitar Style of Jerry Reed song book: “At the 1990 convention of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society in Nashville, I stood in a small group next to Jerry as we listened intently to French guitarist Jean-Felix Lalanne play an impromptu note-for-note rendition of ‘Funky Junk.’ As we applauded Jean-Felix, Jerry scratched his head in disbelief and said, ‘Son! Did I write that?!’ ”

The truth is, as I’ve grown to love one Jerry, I’ve grown to love all three. He found space in his career and life to express all three sides of himself, and in so doing he’s taught me once again, if from the grave, never to  judge a book by its cover. The mind of a Vivaldi can indeed glow from within a Ray Stevens. The court composer and the court jester can share the very same skin.

Sir, for all of that, I salute you with the exclamation you loved best: Son! 


Of Sawdust and Speckled Trout: Remembering my grandfather, Horace Harold Seale

It’s hard to believe my grandfather died more than 30 years ago. I was 18; he was 77. In middle age I have come to realize how quickly the characters of our lives recede from memory if their details aren’t jotted down somewhere. Here is a character I wish to remember, and one I wish for my sons and their children to meet.


Pop and me, during a family trip to South Padre Island c. 1977

Some knew him as Horace, others as Harold, some as H.H., and his younger brother, simply as “Brother.” My brothers and cousins and I knew him as “Pop.”

Pop stood an inch or two over six feet. “Rawboned” describes his frame well. He had big hands and feet, boney elbows. I don’t remember him ever wearing anything but size 13 Hush Puppies, and usually a one-piece khaki work outfit, stained with smudges of wood glue or varnish. In many ways — his height, his frame, his round-shouldered posture, his high hairline and straight, silver, combed-back hair, his raspy tenor voice and old-Texas cadence — he resembled the resident of the White House during the year of my birth, Lyndon Johnson, ranch version.

He had light blue eyes that turned down at the outer edges in a way that made his face default to a gentle, friendly expression. I now realize after discovering older family photos that he inherited those blue eyes from his grandmother, whose Irish parents had given them to her. He wore gold-framed aviator glasses when I knew him. Meaty jaws rendered his face oval. He had a thick, proud nose the shape of which I’ve never seen exactly on anyone else, and he had no visible lips, just a short slit below the nose. His forehead looked as if someone had pinged it a half-dozen times with a hammer, dented from some horrible Medieval operation he had had as a boy to remove cysts.

Horace Harold Seale was born farther west than anyone else in my family before him or since — Uvalde, Texas, 1907.  His father, Horace Bradford Seale, was a grocer, and, still susceptible to the pioneers’ wanderlust, had moved out there to try to make a go of it. But he extended credit to too many neighbors who never paid up. He went bust and they retreated back to East Texas, where my grandfather grew up near his mother’s family, the Brownings, in Athens.


In the 1930s

After marrying my grandmother, who had their first three children, including my father, in Athens, he moved the family to the big city — Fort Worth. But a cousin of his had moved down to the Rio Grande Valley to farm in Cameron County, and on visits, Pop had liked what he’d seen. The area’s agriculture was all well and good — endless fields of cabbage and onions and sorghum and cotton and especially citrus. But what really got his attention was the fishing.

When my dad reached high school, Pop bought a few acres near the small town of La Feria, built a modest but comfortable house on it, and moved the family to the border. Part of the reason for the move to this unfamiliar region was, again, the pioneer’s imperative he carried in his blood — to do what his great-grandfather had done in 1835: move to the very edge of the English-speaking world and make his fortune as a farmer.  His father had failed in his push to the west; maybe he could push to the south. He bought a tractor and planted lemon trees. By the time I came along, the tractor was a rusting hulk that sat behind their house, a novelty my brothers and I would climb on. The farming never took off, but the fishing did.

And so he fell back on the trade he had learned in Fort Worth, repairing air conditioners and refrigerators, and kept right on fishing the flats of South Padre’s Laguna Madre and the brackish mouth of the Arroyo Colorado. He took me fishing alone on several memorable trips. We stayed up past midnight on the muddy banks of the Arroyo, shouting to each other over the roar of the gas-powered generator that ran the flood lights that lured the specks and catfish in. We waded the sandy flats of the Laguna Madre. His 6’2″ frame never looked bigger than when we stopped so he could pop a nitroglycerin tablet to calm his angina, and I, at perhaps 11, pondered the prospect of dragging him a thousand yards back to shore.

In La Feria he would live out his days, and in that pale green house surrounded by palm trees and bougainvilleas and mesquites, we would visit him and my grandmother, whom we called “Nannah,” in the Southern tradition, one Sunday a month, with them making the drive to McAllen to see us as often. Watching him pull up in our driveway and unpacking his big frame from their red VW Bug was something just short of a circus act. I remember him jangling his keys and change in the deep pockets of his high-waisted pants when he would enter our house, excited to see us but unsure what to do with his big bony hands. As soon as we boys would move in for a hug, he would seize us with those massive claws and tickle us mercilessly, his smiling eyes beaming a pseudo-sadistic ecstasy.



Pop displaying the real reason he moved the family to South Texas,
with a red drum and a speckled trout, pipe tucked in shirt pocket.

About those glue-stained coveralls, Pop was a master carpenter, and after retiring from a long career as an air-conditioner and refrigerator repairman, he spent thousands of hours in a cinderblock detached garage that he had built as a shop and that sat on the corner of his property a few feet off the access road of Exp. 83. There he built and refurbished furniture under the name “Sealecraft.” For a long time, I thought that had been his lifelong job, but it was just a sideline and a way to bring in a little spending money in retirement so that he and Nannah could afford long road trips — Nova Scotia, Yosemite — in the Chevy van customized by him for camping.

PopCandlesticks         PopsCandlesticksTable

Pop was especially good at turning, and I inherited a few of his pieces that preserve his lathe-smanship — four candlesticks and a nice little three-legged side table that resides in my son’s room


I spent many hours with him in that shop, not so much watching him work — or I would have learned more — as working in parallel. When the garage door went up, the smell of saw dust and stain and varnish wafted out to us. Inside, the concrete floor of the shop held a table saw, drill press, table sander, a tall workbench with a heavy vice, a lathe, bench-mounted miter box, and my favorite, the band saw. To this day, I could diagram the entire shop floor placing each tool within a couple of feet of its actual station. In the darkened southwest corner stood an unenclosed toilet that no longer worked.

In the northwest corner of the shop stood a large three-tiered lumber rack, and on the floor beneath it, a cardboard refrigerator box laid on its side with the top cut off to hold scraps. The rule was that I could use anything I found in that box to build with. I still have two pieces, a ship and box that I made to hold my beloved Chronicles of Narnia set. Many times, perhaps every time, I was left to work in the shop on my own, I pushed too hard or twisted the work to quickly and snapped his bandsaw blade. Sheepishly, I’d slink into the house to inform him I’d broken the blade. With straight-faced resignation and admirable self control, he’d rise from his recliner, take his leave from Notre Dame vs. Stanford or Dallas vs. Washington, and walk with me out to the shop to put on a new blade.


Two of my particle board scrap masterpieces that have survived the years


Pop watched a lot of football. But he was a reader too. I remember a copy of Michener’s Centennial sitting on the little side-table that held his pipe and ash tray next to his recliner.

He enjoyed telling stories and his cadence and accent make me think that his was the closest to an “old Texas” voice I will ever hear. His exclamations always started with “Why ….” as in, “Why, that dog comes over and starts lickin’ me like he’s known me all my life.” That was another thing — stories were always told in the present tense.

He was born to another time, and that came out now and then, like with the “Why …” or when he called pants “britches” or “trousers.” Other terminology marked the different eras too. Mexican-Americans were “Mexicans” — although in his defense, living only 10 miles from the Rio Grande, often they were in fact Mexicans. African-Americans were cringe-inducing “nigroes.” When I consider that his own grandfather owned slaves, his occasional linguistic shortcuts and shortcomings grow less remarkable, and I appreciate the cultural distance traveled in only two generations. Though I was not a sophisticated observer, I never detected any philosophy in him but live-and-let-live.

Every time we ate at Nannah’s and Pop’s, Pop led grace before we ate, and it was the exact same prayer each and every time. It was heartfelt, but one prayer was identical to the next, both in the text and the inflection. It went:

“Heavenly Father, accept our thanks for these and all thy blessings. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our hands to Thy service. Pardon our sins and save us. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Nannah was the cook of the family, but when Pop was left to his own devices, he was known to get two pieces of bread, spread them with mayonnaise, then get out a brisket or a ham, trim the fat off the meat, and put the fat on the sandwich and the meat back in the fridge.

Like almost everyone in mid-century, he had smoked cigarettes earlier in life, but he had switched to a pipe by the time we came around. The sweet smell of pipe smoke takes me directly back to that time and place. He died of lung cancer in May 1984.

When I think of Pop, I smell sawdust and pipe smoke. I hear keys jingling in deep pockets, the roar of a table saw or of a light plant generator, and Pat Summerall 30 percent too loud. I feel his enormous, gnarled hands mercilessly digging at my ribs. I see his index finger rubbing glue over a dowel and hear him explaining to me that you have to let it get tacky before you put it together with the other piece. I see his size 13 Hush Puppies, and his blue-gray smiling eyes.

And the Secret to Life Is …

[This essay was originally published in four parts on as “The Universal Secret to Success.”]

Many people have floated theories about the secret of life: Woody Allen said that 80 percent of life is just showing up. James Taylor sang that the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, proposed that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, was … 42. Unfortunately no one knows what the question is, and so an enormous planet-sized organic supercomputer was designed to ferret out the question over a period of 7.5 million years, and the computer was named “Earth.”

On some level, I could get behind all of those theories. But I now have one that, after my own forty-something years, I’m completely convinced of. I hasten to add that I have not discovered it in the way that Newton discovered gravity or Einstein relativity. Rather I am claiming this in the way I also claim to have once discovered that stoves can be hot. That is, I have now discovered for myself something that many, many others discovered before me. And here it is …

Success in life, whether at the individual level or at the collective, comes from honoring, above all else, process. Now, “process” is not a word that gets our blood pumping. It conjures bureaucrats at their desks stamping files and consulting thick binders of regulations, hardly the stuff of inspiration. But hear me out.

The history of humanity is largely the story of people striving for goals and, naturally enough, striving for them in what they see as the most efficient way possible: “Our goal is to have more food. That tribe over there has more food. Therefore the most efficient way for us to get more food is to move over there and kill them.” Instead of “food” we can substitute the words “gold,” “silver,” “horses,” “oil,” “land,” “stock,” “votes,” and we can substitute the word “kill” with “defeat,” “marginalize,” or “disadvantage.” But the pattern is all the same: we’ll get what we want in the most efficient way, and usually that is at someone else’s expense.

This wouldn’t surprise an alien observer of our species, as we evolved up through nature and this ruthless efficiency is the way nature works: in nature, the end always justifies the means. Nothing in nature would even consider the means and the ends to be separate things, and so neither did we until relatively recently.

Most people, when pressed, now will concede that there are some areas in which the end does not justify the means: the end of gaining food, would not justify the means of stealing it.

The radical position I have come to over many years and as the result of having my nose bloodied many times by life is this: that not only does the end sometimes not justify the means, but that the end never justifies the means. And what the Universe is trying to teach us throughout history over and over again until we get it, is that there are no caveats to this, no end-runs, no short-cuts. It’s a spiritual law that is as hard and fast as any physical law.

Here’s a framework for understanding this idea. Think of all of our actions as the product of both ideas and processes, each of those falling into good or bad categories, like this:

  • Bad idea + wrong process = bad outcome

  • Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome

  • Good idea + right process = good outcome

And finally — and this is the kicker:

  • Bad idea + right process = good outcome

In other words, process is king. Process is all.

But if process is all, then we’d better have a good way of discerning what constitutes right process. How do we know when we’re adhering to right process and when we’re not? Because in this scheme, that’s the key to everything, the key, as it were, to the kingdom.

After many years of thinking about this (and many failed attempts to be happy using other more popular ideas) it seems irrefutable to me that the Universe rewards humans for only one thing in the long run: acting in the spirit of unity. This is the grand unifying theory (not coincidentally) of spirituality and therefore of ultimate success. And of course, it is the central theme and whole purpose of the Baha’i Faith.

This might all sound reasonable enough, as we all project our own thoughts and preferences on what it means to strive for this all-important “unity.” But before we nod in agreement and wave this off as just garden-variety common sense, let’s run the idea through a few case studies.

We can begin with the most blatant example of ends used to justify means: war. In war we seek the destruction of an enemy for some supposed greater good. But there is inevitably a problem, and Gandhi put his finger on it when he famously said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” Understanding both our human myopia and amnesia is key to getting this. In the short run, war can appear to fix all sorts of things. But in the long run it inevitably either creates more problems than solves, or delays the solving of the real problem. At the other end, we tend quickly to forget the horrors of war, while we glorify its trappings in parades, ceremonies, air shows, and reenactments. (The Baha’i Faith is not a pacifist religion; the Founders do prescribe military action in the interest of collective security. But the world political unity under which such action would be desirable is so distant that the Faith’s teachings do not support waging war under any current scenario.)

But war is only the most extreme example. Politics as currently practiced is war less the physical violence (usually). So while vastly preferable to war, it is hardly the best we can do. Politics offers a vivid example of the end-justifies-means mindset. Again and again we see the pattern: a young, idealistic person enters the world of political involvement to “make a difference,” a praiseworthy and virtuous motive. She ran for office in her high school and was elected. In college she got involved by volunteering in a presidential campaign, and now that she’s out of law school, has a fire in her belly to run for office and right wrongs she sees all around her.

To the immense pride of her parents and former teachers, she gets elected. Now, at last, she is in a position to start making those changes for which her soul has longed. But first, she quickly comes to the realization that she cannot change the world if she doesn’t stay in office. So if Day One was a celebration of her first election, Day Two begins her next campaign. Unless she possesses superhuman virtues, the pressures of office and frustration with process lead her inexorably toward cutting corners. Moreover, to get reelected, she must fight, and fighting involves bragging about her own accomplishments and belittling the views and accomplishments of her competitors — hardly spiritually uplifting activity. In some cases, slowly, almost imperceptibly, corruption follows.

Multinational corporate practice or any practice that subjugates one people in the world to another falls under the heading of marginalization, which is against the spirit of unity. Lavish spending on luxury items when millions go without essentials shows in yet another way how far we are from unity. The Baha’i fix to these gross inequalities and the pooling of wealth is meaningful profit-sharing for every worker in the hierarchy.

So right out of the gate we have three topics — war, politics, and greed — that dominate our news cycle, and all, as practiced today, are rigorously working against the idea of unity.

But we also see the process play out in less obvious ways. Take the idea of transcendence. Transcendence is good idea, but when we try a shortcut to attain the sensation of transcendence, like drugs, we’ve selected the wrong process, and that yields a bad outcome. Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome. On the other hand: Transcendence (good idea) + prayer and meditation (right process) = good outcome.

Sex, most would concede, seems like a pretty good idea on any given day. But process matters. When we follow right process — getting married first — we run a better chance of getting the ideal outcome: children raised in a well-supported home, as well as the sex (although, granted, the presence of the former is not always conducive to the latter). When we dismiss that process, we usually get bad outcomes: disease, abortion, dysfunctional relationships, greater poverty, greater stress, disjointed society.

The passage of time can deceive us into thinking that good ideas alone equal progress. Something will be erected that is seemingly indestructible, but there is a bug in its operating system, there is a corruption hidden deep inside it that dooms it from the start.

An ancient Egyptian would have gazed on the pyramids and reasonably assumed that their civilization would stand just as long as these magnificent structures. The machine ran for centuries, but was doomed to conk because something in it did not honor unity (much to the contrary, it relied on slavery).

The Roman Empire outwardly was majestic in every way, but the process was corrupt: slavery, blood games, hedonism, corruption, oppression. The machine ran, but was doomed to conk.

For its part, the lasting success of the United States, I believe, has been achieved in direct proportion to its unity and its unifying work in the world. I do not mean this in the way the world currently measures power and success, but in the legacy it will leave to the world. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, it has achieved an astonishing pluralism and, as the oldest republic in the world, has been a critical crucible of democracy and rule of law in the modern world. The United Nations, likewise, will be only as successful as is its members’ authentic commitment to unity.

As mentioned, many people smarter than me came to this conclusion long ago, and I will now put a name to this idea. It is called deontological ethics, and it stands in opposition to consequentialism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the main purveyor of this idea in modern times, though, of course, the ancient Greeks got to it first as they did almost everything else.

If there is a poster boy for the other side, it is Machiavelli, who gave us: “It  is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” and, “Men  should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot,” as well as “It is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.”

The poet Paulo Coelho wrote “…the ends do not justify the means. Because there are no ends, there are only means…”  He goes beyond Kant’s simple dichotomy and recognizes the timelessness of existence. If you consider your existence as eternal, then process becomes all.  If there is truly no end to the life of the human soul – something every great faith tells us – then the concept of “ends” becomes somewhat meaningless.

When we think of the equation “bad idea + right process = good outcome,” we can think of Abdu’l-Baha’s guidance for governance: “…I swear by the one true God, it is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually lead to the righting of the wrong.”

So in addition to unity attracting divine confirmations, there also is a sort of divinely protected numbers game in which by casting our lot with unity, we will come out way ahead purely in terms of the massive increase in productivity that unified action results in.

We get another glimpse of the phenomenon of mistakes being righted in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an aggrieved community member having a dispute with his Local Spiritual Assembly: “As you know, you are free to request the Assembly to reconsider its decision. However, you may wish to weigh this course of action against the reaction it could produce, and which may cause you further stress. In some cases, it is preferable if one accepts humbly the view of the Assembly in a spirit of sacrifice, and without further dispute. Then, any wrong decision will eventually be set right. When the believers act submissively and in a spirit of self-effacement it attracts the good pleasure of God, which in itself serves as a consolation to their hearts.” (From a letter dated 12 September 1988)

Understanding the primacy of unity is the key to understanding Baha’i teachings on every topic. The Faith can hold that a certain practice is wrong, but how that wrong is righted is just as important as the wrong itself. For example, the Baha’i Faith teaches that the soul associates with the body at conception, and therefore it follows that abortion is wrong. But we are told, almost in the same breath, that we should not make this subject the cause of divisiveness and that we should scrupulously avoid becoming entangled in the political controversy.

This aversion to divisiveness extends across all matters. If we seek to fix a problem through any sort of divisive action, we’ve created a situation in which the “cure is worse than the disease.” Accordingly Baha’is might march in a demonstration “for race unity” but would not be tempted to participate in a “protest against racism.” Mother Teresa captured this idea. When once she was asked if she would participate in a Vietnam War protest, she said, “No, but if you hold a march for peace, I will be there.”

Baha’u’llah wrote, “Beware lest ye contend with any one, nay strive to make him aware of the truth with kindly manner and most convincing exhortations.” And again, “Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 279, p. 216)

Being “for race unity and peace” instead of “against racism and war” might seem like simply playing games with words, but it is not. The difference is profound. If we are to change the world in a lasting way, we must change it through the power of attraction. The planet will be saved by a great joining, an ingathering, by, in modern parlance, a glorious “opt in” — and not by the means that fill our history books — the overpowering of one group by another.

Why Baha’i? It Comes Down to Five Questions

A little more than 10 years ago, I decided to become a Baha’i. It was a momentous event in my life, yet one I did not see coming. I was not friends with any Baha’is at the time, and had only met two in my life.

For having no personal tie to this religion, it was a decision that seemed to come suddenly, as if it were an inescapable fate. But when I search my past for early signs that I might have landed in this theological place, I wind up with a startling realization. More than anyone else, my decision to become a Baha’i might be attributable to … C.S. Lewis. Yes, I’m referring to the most celebrated Christian theologian of modern history.

I say this primarily for one reason, which is that when I was about 27, I read his masterwork of popular theology Mere Christianity, in which he asserted the following:

“Religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the sailing of the human fleet: if they are false, quite a different set.”

When I reread Lewis today, there is a great deal with which I disagree. (This is not the place to catalogue those divergences.) But the statement above I found to be not only self-evident but supremely valuable and underappreciated. Though I may not have realized it, I clenched this nugget of truth tightly as the sometimes stormy events of my life rolled by and my circumstances changed. Truth is not relative. Not everything is a matter of perspective or semantics or psychology.

Over time, the questions I had about God, spirituality, and religion gelled into five, each of which, if answered in what I believed to be the sensible way, compelled me on to the next question, and finally, inescapably, to my embrace of the Baha’i Faith.

It might seem odd that five questions could compel someone anywhere on or off the religious spectrum to such a specific association. It’s sort of like saying I could get from my office in downtown Austin, Texas, to Moxie’s Classic Grill at the Intercity Mall in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with only five turns. But as it happens, I could do just that. You see, it’s not the distance travelled, but making the right decisions at the right junctures that leads you to that classic grill. And if it still seems odd or unlikely, C.S. Lewis himself might have said it best:

“Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd… Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity.  It is a religion you could not have guessed….”

Question 1: Is there a God?

In my analogy of getting from downtown Austin to Thunder Bay, Ontario, with five turns, the trick, of course, is that the vast majority of the drive is on a single road, Interstate 35. The most important turn I make, then, is getting going the right direction on I-35 once I get there. If I get there and somehow enter the highway going south instead of north, then virtually no number of turns will get me to Moxie’s Classic Grill. So it pays to take our time and really nail that first crucial decision; it’s the foundation for everything that comes after it.

First, we have to say upfront that there can be no proof of God nor disproof of God; God is both unprovable and nonfalsifiable, so if you’re looking for proof you can skip the rest of the essay. Of course, this is far from saying there is no evidence of God. Indeed, He has left His fingerprints on everything. The incomparable interdependent genius of nature is often presented as Exhibit A that there is some kind of intelligence at work in whatever force is continuously creating the universe — a force far, far beyond our own intelligence. This may be affirming for those who already believe, but skeptics may counter that this is not in and of itself proof of anything more than that nature’s laws can produce amazing results.

What cannot be so easily batted away, in my opinion, is how and why human beings are inspired by that nature, and by many other parts of life that would not seem to be necessary for our biological survival, as nature would dictate. Science can explain the optics of a fiery sunset, but it cannot explain why that sunset can also bring tears to the eyes of the viewer. The meaning with which we imbue our world is inexplicable in purely evolutionary terms. Group psychology, evolutionary psychology, and brain chemistry can explain many behaviors, but deep and spiritual love one for another? Sacrifice and even martyrdom to an ideal? Passion for art? I think not. These simply do not appear to be the province of the material world, and at the very least are not qualities found anywhere outside ourselves. To try to reduce all human experience to the cold calculations of natural law simply seems a stretch, let alone to assign the love and inspiration one feels in her own life to mere calculations — no matter how complex — seems to be a contortion designed merely to relieve oneself from considering the ramifications of a non-material plane.

Our old friend C.S. Lewis masterfully points out the contradiction in nihilism:

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

This deserves meditation.

I empathize with those who don’t believe in God, for many reasons, not least on grounds that the universe often appears to be coldly indifferent to us. Disease and starvation beset innocent children. Those who eat right and exercise keel over from a heart attack, while the greedy, not the meek, appear to inherit the earth. A deeper reading however shows that the vast majority of humanity’s wounds are self-inflicted and more often than not because we have stubbornly ignored the advice of God’s messengers. For those few wounds that are not, we can conclude that volatility in the universe must exist for free will to exist. This volatility can come at a harsh price. We can also conclude that, while there may be a life after death, in this life God seems to place a premium on collective progress, often at the expense of individual welfare.

Is it rational to believe in something for which there is no proof? For some people, the answer is no, though I suspect if one scratched the surface he would find they apply this logic selectively. For me, it is entirely rational to proclaim belief in something for which there may be no conclusive proof but for which the cumulative evidence is not only sufficient but overwhelming. For me, God is squarely in this category.

Question 2. Is God “personal”?

If you believe that God exists, the next split on the decision tree seems to be whether you believe God is “personal” or a creative but blind force. Most religions agree that God is personal, for quite a logical reason:

If God exists, then by definition He must be vastly superior to anything in His creation. Since we are a part of that creation, and we know a thing or two about ourselves, we can assume that God must contain all the capacities of the human (plus infinitely more). Therefore, if one human capacity is the ability to love, then God must have that ability, and more. If one human capacity is to discern and value justice, then God must know and value justice. If another human capacity is compassion, then God must also contain that, and so forth. Carried to its logical conclusion, if one capacity of humans is to discipline their children out of love, then God too must have this capacity and to an even greater degree. Carefully applied, this line of logic gives motive and rich texture to humanity’s ongoing relationship with its Creator.

As a corollary, God could not contain negative traits of humans as those are clearly the absence of the good. Rage is the absence of patience. Boastfulness, the absence of humility, etc. Dark is not an extant thing but rather the absence of light.

This is not anthropomorphizing God… “Humans do X so God must do X because we’re obviously very close to gods.” Rather, it’s simple logic: any being contains the capacities of any lower being. Vegetables have the capacity of minerals, yet more. Animals have the capacities of vegetables, yet more. Humans have the capacities of animals, yet more. And so forth.

Another frequent corollary to this distinction of God as “personal” is that God can and does intervene in human affairs. This belief is the basis for prayers of supplication. For me, God by definition has two qualities: omnipotence and will. By definition, God does what He wants. That’s what it means to be God. And if He does what He wants, it stands to reason He would want to interact with His creation in all sorts of ways, just as a loving parent wants to interact with her child.

And just as a loving parent teaches her child to use its words and ask for what it wants as opposed to demanding, complaining, or merely suffering, it seems God has encouraged us similarly to use words and thoughts to ask for what we want and need — a crucial link in the developmental process be it for an individual or a sentient species.

Question 3. How would a “personal God” interact with us?

If you agree God exists and that God is “personal,” then it is a relatively short step to believe that God would desire, and therefore create, a means to that end — a way to establish a “personal” relationship. But the nature of God appears to be such that there can be no direct contact between Creator and creation. Perhaps it’s like the sun and the earth. The former is too powerful to directly contact the latter without destroying or subsuming it. For creation to exist, there seems to need to be a remove, in Baha’i parlance, a “tree beyond which there is no passing.”

If omnipotent, then God could prove His existence to us if He wanted to. The fact that He doesn’t points to His unwillingness to do so. The likely reason for this is that proof would obviate the need for faith, and a close reading of the scriptures of the world reveals the critical role of faith. There must be something about faith that is critical to the process of growth. To survive, let alone to grow, a child must have faith in the parent.

But if humans are as children to this spiritual parent, then it is natural that the parent hire a teacher to help them advance. We see education as a fundamental and universal right in the material world. And it stands to reason that if God is personal, then, motivated by love, He would desire our growth and therefore need to concoct a process to stimulate that growth.

And when we look at the sweep of civilization we see just such a process has played out. The rise of humanity has not been a smooth ascending line. Rather, advancement in civilization comes in sudden and erratic fits and starts. This is one of the great mysteries of our own history — how, in the space of about 6,000 years, within a species timeframe of perhaps 1 million years, civilizations all over the world blossomed seemingly spontaneously.

Certainly, their progress was not precisely uniformed, and heaven knows that civilization is still very much a work in progress. But viewed in the full scope of history, everything around us that we enjoy has sprung into being in the relative blink of an eye. Indeed, when you really put civilizations under a microscope, you see a remarkable thing: that the greatest ones sprang into being as the result of a single person. Hebrew civilization traces itself to Abraham, and, as a second, solidifying force, to Moses. Christendom traces itself to the appearance of a single figure, Jesus Christ. Islamic civilization, which most scholars agree ushered Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance and in turn the Enlightenment, traces back to the Prophet Muhammad. The vast and predominately peaceful and compassionate Buddhist civilization sprang into being because of a single person. And so it goes. Is this merely coincidence, or is something more profound at work here?

In my faith we believe this phenomenon is no coincidence, and we call each of the Founders of those world faiths “Manifestations of God.” If we’re trying to discover the way in which God tries to reach humanity, we don’t need to look farther than these Figures. Humans need teachers whom they can understand, who speak their language, and for the most part live among them. These teachers need to share enough of the people’s culture so that they can find an audience — use the common vocabulary, wear the clothing, tell the stories and reference the texts — but also challenge those cultures.

Indeed, they usually challenge them in ways that land them in jail or get them executed. Indeed, these few people down the ages are thought to constitute a special class of souls, and in their own individualized ways, they are each perfect reflections of God’s attributes. They are not God, and are not gods, but rather are humans employed by God to be His messengers, to teach His children. The side effect is that each time one appears, he renews civilization. Through them, God “dispenses” His next round of lessons for humanity. They appear to be sent strategically to certain populations at certain times to have the greatest impact and to teach human populations in an age-appropriate way.

I was speaking at a Unitarian Universalist church recently when, after my talk, an earnest gentleman approached me and, with furrowed brow, asked, “Now… I want to know … deep down in your heart of hearts, do you really believe that a man can be the mouthpiece of God?” I said, “I get the gist of your question, and I understand the hesitance. But I think nature gives us the model of what is happening here. To create a new human body, we don’t need all the cells of the body contributing equally. Indeed, it only takes one sperm cell out of millions to fertilize the egg and bring that new body into existence, to be that primal cause. I think that’s what’s happening with these Manifestations.” He nodded, furrowed his brow again, deeper in thought, shook my hand, and strolled away.

Another question within this larger question of how God would interact with us is, are we done learning? If you believe that the prophet or founder of your religion is the last that will ever appear to humanity, then you must also believe that we have done all the learning we can, that humanity is as advanced as it will ever be, and that civilization is in its final form. All I can say when I look around is, I certainly hope not!

Baha’is believe that God has led humans to increasingly advanced stages of civilization over the years through the appearance of these great teachers. It’s an idea known as “progressive revelation.” Many religions have an implicit belief in progressive revelation. For example, in Judaism, believers hold Abraham as the patriarch of the Jewish people, but later, revere Moses as the founder of the religion itself. And after Moses, there appears a whole series of prophets they believe brought the Word of God to the Israelites through different eras. Christians believe in the divine authority of all of those prophets, but then of course add John the Baptist and, in a class of His own, Jesus Christ. Muslims hold all of those figures in reverence and add Muhammad. What all of these world religions have in common, though, is that they believe their prophet or prophets were the last, this despite another shared tradition among them all that claims there will be another in the future who will unite humanity in a golden age or kingdom of heaven on earth.

To me, it just seems unlikely on its face that if God were a loving God, He would say, “Okay, that’s it! That’s all I’m saying! You people can figure out the rest on your own!” And even if you hold that position, it seems painfully obvious just by looking around that we haven’t figured it out on our own. To the contrary, it appears it’s high time God sent someone to give us the keys to success in this strange and new world we call the modern age.

Question 4. Who is the teacher for today?

If you believe that God exists, accept that God is personal, extrapolate that a personal God would want to teach us, and can see that human civilization is obviously far from having learned all it’s capable of, the next logical question is, who is the teacher for today?

There have been scads of people who have raised their hands and claim to be the spokespersons for God for today. David Koresh, Jim Jones, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and many others have claimed this. Indeed, in the mid 19th century, following the appearance of a Persian prophet known as The Bab, no fewer than 24 men claimed to be the fulfillment of The Bab’s prophecy.

With the luxury of more than a century and a half between then and now, it is fairly plain to see that only one of them was correct. His name, for which the Baha’i Faith takes its name, was Baha’u’llah.

I was on Baha’i pilgrimage in Haifa, Israel, and had just finished answering my Jewish American roommate’s questions about the Baha’i Faith, when he grinned and said, “It takes a lot of chutzpah to claim you’re a messenger from God.” I thought about his comment for a long time, and when I returned home, I sent him an e-mail, and said, “You may have been right about that, but as we say in Texas, it ain’t bragging if it’s true.”

There are myriad reasons that I believe Baha’u’llah’s claim to be God’s teacher for today. But here are the biggest:

  • The power of His words. It was common in the time of Baha’u’llah for people to expect miracles from those who professed divine authority. And while accounts of Baha’u’llah’s life are replete with miraculous happenings, Baha’u’llah Himself discounted the ability of these events to convince anyone not “in the room.” Instead, He said, the most convincing evidence of an authentic Messenger of God is the power of His words. This is for the reason that they are not really His words at all, but the words of God. This is something that cannot be explained or conveyed by a third party like myself. All I can do is point you to the words. If they touch your heart and mind the way they touch mine, then that is all I can do.
  • Layer upon the power of His words the testament of His life story. That story is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say for now that the history of the Faith, and in particular the history of this figure, reads like the story of a real religion. There is drama upon a sweeping historical stage here that is not like religious “fan fiction” that sometimes crops up in modern times seemingly as a sort of cheap imitation of historic religions of the past. Here, in this history, still so accessible to us though little realized by wider society, is the dawning of a new age, the sacrifice of tens of thousands, and stories that fill books and testify to the authenticity of this great new religion.
  • As part of that life story, we must look at and admit that the effect He had on those around Him was astonishing. We can only appreciate this at a remove, but reading accounts written by so many different people leaves little doubt that the force of Baha’u’llah’s personality was miraculous in its effect. Political oppressors, jailers, and even would-be assassins transformed into among His most devoted followers.
  • Baha’u’llah fulfilled the messianic prophecies of every world religion. This is a somewhat more esoteric area of study, one that takes effort and discernment, but for those of us who put stock in the writings and prophecies of the world’s great religions, it is an area of abundant confirmation.
  • Finally, He was the one who articulated the very idea of progressive revelation. If we’re looking for the successor to this great chain of teachers, who better than the one who pointed out that there was a chain at all?

Question 5. Where is the teacher’s classroom?

We’re almost to Moxie’s Classic Grill, but let’s not get lost inside the mall! For there is one last critical step, or turn, to make.

It’s well and good to admire the ideals for which Baha’u’llah stood and the way in which He lived His majestic life. But how do we know that the Baha’i Faith, as it exists today, is really what He had in mind? In other words, if Baha’u’llah is God’s teacher for today, then how do we know the Baha’i Faith is His classroom?

Perhaps Jesus said it best when He said, according to Matthew 7:15:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

By their fruits, you will know them. Today, we have a luxury, almost 170 years by which to judge the intentions and the efficacy of the Baha’i Faith. Not every soul who has entered this Faith has been committed to keeping it unified. But those who have tried to create splinter groups within the Baha’i Faith have come to utter nothingness.

Meanwhile, the institution that has remained faithful to the line of authority set in motion by Baha’u’llah — namely that after His passing, His followers should follow His son Abdu’l-Baha, and then His great-grandson Shoghi Effendi, and then the elected body called the Universal House of Justice — this institution has flourished in a breathtaking display of what happens when the work of women and men is aligned with the intention, protection, and confirmation of God.

In seventeen decades, the Baha’i Faith has become the second-most geographically widespread religion in the world, with a dazzling array of ethnicities and former members of every world religion bolstering its ranks day by day. In my mind’s eye, I see the timeless and monumental architecture and gardens of the Faith’s holy places — the Shrines of the Bab and Baha’u’llah in the Holy Land, and the magnificent Baha’i Houses of Worship now on nearly every continent — as the outward manifestation of the beauty, robustness, and permanence of this profound spiritual planetary germination.

* * *

To sum up, we can articulate this theological chain of inference this way:

  1. If the universe, then God.
  2. If us, then a personal God.
  3. If a personal God, then Messengers.
  4. If Messengers, then Baha’u’llah.
  5. If Baha’u’llah, then the Baha’i Faith.

Why am I a Baha’i? That is why.

The Bigfoot Manifesto

Why I Can’t Get Enough of the Sasquatch Mystery, What It Reveals about the Human Condition, and Why I Believe

* * *

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

                                                         –Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

On September 24, 2011, about 30 minutes until dark, I wheeled into the Double Lake Recreation Area inside Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas. My 9-year-old son and I were about to head out and camp on the Lone Star Hiking Trail when the park host stopped us to explain that there was no camping out on the trail because of the extreme drought and a burn ban that was in effect. Then we heard it.

It sounded like a very loud, whooping howl, echoing across the dry lake bed from a half mile or so to the east. I looked at Andrew and smiled. I didn’t want to lead the park host, so I asked innocently but incredulously, “What’s that?!”

“Probably a coyote,” he responded.

I’ve heard plenty of coyotes, and whatever this was, it wasn’t a coyote, as their typical call is at least an octave higher. Neither was it a wolf, which, if it were, would be just about as notable as a cryptid. Neither do I think it was an owl; one can easily tell the difference between a soft sound made at close range and a very loud sound made at a very great distance, and this was the latter. I didn’t argue with him, but simply looked down at Andrew and raised my eyebrows. Andrew returned a smile, a mix of authentic wonder and amusement. We both knew what the other was thinking.

I can’t say that what we heard that afternoon in the failing light of an East Texas forest was a sasquatch, but I can and do say that it might have been.

Andrew and I were on the same wavelength because we’d spent a fair amount of time over the previous couple of months discussing the sasquatch mystery, prompted by the premier season of a cable series devoted to the subject and my discovery of surprisingly large online collections of alleged photos and videos of the creatures.

I knew from research that, however unlikely it was, this was a place where a sasquatch could be. Unlike our home four hours west in Central Texas, which has no woodlands contiguous with the rest of North America’s forests, we were now in country that was at least sasquatch-plausible. San Jacinto County alone has seven encounters on record since 1996, the latest occurring in this national forest in 2008. Add the sightings from the five surrounding counties (Montgomery, Liberty, Polk, Trinity, and Walker), and the number climbs to an even 50.

In the days afterward, I emailed the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy and the national Bigfoot Field Research Organization asking if they knew of anyone doing research in the area that night, perhaps using a technique known as “call blasting,” playing reputed bigfoot howls over an amplifier in hopes of getting a response. The last thing enthusiasts need is to be reporting each other’s calls like Keystone Cops. I never got an answer, so it remains an intriguing mystery.

I was born in 1967, the very year the sasquatch transitioned from persistent legend to pop-culture phenomenon with the capture on 16-millimeter film of an alleged specimen walking in full view along Bluff Creek in far northwestern California by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. So, along with all other members of my generation, I grew up in tandem with the spread of the legend.

The awareness starts as a familiarity with a campy stock character in commercials, the Six Million Dollar Man’s boulder-heaving nemesis, or the subject of patently ridiculous tabloid headlines. Most dismiss it with a chuckle and a shake of the head, the doings of bored hillbillies or transparent self-promoters, and it ends there. But for me, my curiosity about the fringes of our world has always been stronger than my need to cut the fringes off and throw them away.

In my early 30s, for no particular reason I can remember, the subject bubbled up in my consciousness, and I realized that there were rich themes in this mystery that had never been mined in serious literature. Rushing to fill that void, I wrote a novella called simply Sasquatch. I never published the book, and neither did anyone else. But there was one lasting effect of my having written it, which was that the research I did during the writing made me a solid believer.

Once I began looking into the subject in a sustained way, it quickly became clear that something was going on here that was much more than just pop-culture shtick. What closed the deal for me was a book titled Big Footprints by Grover Krantz, an anthropologist at Washington State University who was virtually the only academic researcher at the time willing to investigate the mystery. I was deeply moved by the enormous courage Dr. Krantz showed, standing staunch against attacks and ridicule from throughout the academic world and insisting that this was a legitimate field of inquiry.

And I began to realize that the themes pervading the sasquatch mystery cut right to the heart of the human condition and, what’s more, in their own quirky way echoed all the great themes of humanity’s experience with spirituality: faith and nonbelief, evidence versus proof, the ridicule of cynics, hoaxes and frauds, lazy skepticism versus earnest investigation, taboos, and a circle of willful ignorance.

Just as Noah, in following his convictions, made himself an easy target for the laughter and scorn of his neighbors, Krantz — complete with flowing white beard — laid himself open to ridicule of scientific colleagues by asking questions — starting with “What made these footprints?” — and following the answers wherever they led. As I read his work and that of others, it occurred to me that future historians might well regard him as a Galileo of our day. His flinty indifference to fellow academics, caviling against him from the safety of their narrow, well-worn specialties and catered symposia, was inspiring.

For many years, I’ve thought about dusting off the manuscript of Sasquatch and making another run at it. I’m a better writer now, I know more about the subject, and I could spin a more compelling tale. But something has kept me from it, and I think ultimately it is this — that any fictional treatment of this subject at this point in history only serves to feed the perception that the subject itself is fictional.

And yet I’m drawn to write about it all the same, and so I offer these thoughts on the nature of the mystery, the state of the collective investigation, and what it all says about us.

I Know How Crazy It Sounds

Any serious discussion of the existence of the sasquatch has to begin with an acknowledgement of the difficulties, which are chiefly these: how is it possible that modern science has named 400,000 beetles and yet has not recognized and named a species that by all reports is larger than ourselves, sometimes much larger, and that is orders of magnitude closer to humans than anything else on the tree of life? How is it possible that we not only have not captured one, but have not found a body, or part of a body?

As a species, we have utterly dominated the planet, infiltrating every nook and cranny of wilderness, heaven knows to a fault. The odds against us not having obtained proof of such a spectacular creature seem simply too great. It seems too fantastic. Therefore, it must all simply be a matter of hoaxes, misidentifications, and hallucinations. It can’t be, therefore, it isn’t.

The short answer to why science hasn’t discovered and catalogued the sasquatch yet is that science isn’t looking. At the center of the sasquatch mystery, we find a circle of ignorance: Scientists refuse to investigate the phenomenon because it hasn’t been established by science. And it hasn’t been established by science because scientists refuse to investigate it. Imagine if all science proceeded on the premise that scientists only studied things that were already established by their peers.

This self-reinforcing circle of ignorance is quite astonishing when fully appreciated and shows up just how full of human frailty the scientific establishment is. Despite science’s claims of rationality and impartiality, this phenomenon demonstrates how laden it is with selective open-mindedness, cowardice and timidity, careerism and personal ambition, and even intimidation. Far from simply asking bold and earnest questions — What made these footprints? What’s on that piece of film? — with few exceptions, we find satisfaction with burnishing one’s career by tiny increments in impossibly narrow specializations. By refusing to study this subject in any sustained impartial way, indeed, in threatening to revoke the tenure of those who show an interest in it and shunning it as taboo, the scientific establishment has deeply betrayed its own principles and demonstrated all the backward dogma of the Medieval church: “It isn’t because it can’t be.”

Who is “We”?

To the question, “How is it possible that we have not found a body…” it also is necessary to define “we.” There are several accounts of bodies being found. In one case, a creature was reportedly hit on a highway. Local police, not knowing how to report something that is not supposed to exist, cordoned off the area and called a higher authority, the state, who, facing the same dilemma, in turn called the National Guard. The subject was hauled away in an unmarked van, never to be reported or  officially acknowledged.

Another account tells of a live subject who, dazed and injured, wandered out of a Nevada forest fire and, finding himself surrounded by firefighters and EMS, simply “surrendered.” He sat before them and reportedly even allowed himself to be cared for before he was eventually taken away in vehicle without official report.

These accounts are, by definition, hearsay, but they have a ring of plausibility. It doesn’t require a widespread conspiracy theory to imagine that when government officials suddenly face an unprecedented and sure-to-be-sensational situation, they would opt simply to make it quietly go away, “unmarked van” style, rather than risk being swept up in a media circus with which they forever would be associated.

Some tell of bigfoot killings, in which the shooter remained anonymous out of fear of prosecution. Other accounts tell of 8-foot skeletons once discovered in a Kentucky cave, only to disappear into private hands.

Still others tell of lumberjacks being given a gag order by their higher-ups to not discuss what they see or find for fear that confirming the existence of bigfoots would create a nightmare of new forestry regulation for the timber industry (see “spotted owl”).

In defining the “we” in “Why haven’t we found one?” there is much anecdotal evidence that some of us have. And while many people are motivated to find and document them, others are just as motivated to keep their existence apocryphal for a range of reasons — fear of ridicule, fear of career damage, fear of regulation, fear of prosecution, fear of inciting hunting mobs or mob tourism, and the reflexive denial of government officials who assume common citizens couldn’t handle the truth.

The War for Occam’s Razor

Like all mysteries, the debate over the existence of the sasquatch is at its core a battle for Occam’s Razor. Named for Medieval English friar William of Ockham and also known as the law of parsimony, economy, or succinctness, Occam’s Razor is a principle that recommends selecting from among competing hypotheses the one that makes the fewest new assumptions. (The “razor” is what shaves away unnecessarily complicated parts of a theory or what separates one theory from another.)

Let’s list the competing sets of assumptions quickly …

Assumptions on the side of existence:

1. That humans have not classified/discovered every remarkable animal on earth. This is manifestly true. The point has been made many times that no less a zoological superstar than the mountain gorilla was only “discovered” in 1902. Indeed, more than 20 primates have been discovered since 1990. Even megafauna are discovered on a fairly regular basis.

2. That humans are not presently capable of dominating the vast wilderness areas of the northern hemisphere (they appear to exist in Eurasia as well) so completely as to rule out the existence of a smart, reclusive creature with vastly superior wilderness adaptations.

3. That an animal that was …

  • mostly nocturnal
  • supremely well adapted to forest living
  • possessed highly effective forest camouflage as well as hiding and evasive instincts, and
  • second in intelligence only to ourselves

… could not evade us except for a few dozen instances a year.

Assumptions necessary to deny existence:

1. That every single one of the thousands of sightings (some claim 3,000, others 30,000) on record is a case of a. mistaken identity, b. hoax, or c. hallucination.

2. That these hoaxes, hallucinations, and misidentifications have been taking place across the northern hemisphere for hundreds of years.

3. That First Nations people are in on the joke and have been for centuries, or else that they, who culturally are far more experienced in the American wilderness than late-coming white settlers, are not capable of telling the difference between a large primate that walks on two legs and other common animals of the forest.

4. That people in 49 states have concocted hoaxes that include photographs, casted footprints, and video that are sophisticated enough to agree on a large number of subtle physiological and behavioral traits and are sophisticated enough to fabricate DNA and hair samples that are non-human but primate.

Which scenario does Occam’s Razor favor?

For me and for other believers, it favors existence. In short, as hard as it may be to believe, it is easier to believe that there is a large but extremely reclusive primate living on this continent than to believe that, say, 15,000 people from all walks of life, including people like practicing psychologists and active-duty police officers with nothing to gain and everything to lose by reporting such a thing, are either wildly misidentifying bears or recruiting NBA players to travel into incredibly remote areas of North America and parade around in ape costumes through rough terrain.

Hoaxes have occurred, and many misidentifications too. But ultimately, nonbelief impugns too many credible, corroborating witnesses. While there still is no proof, the mass of circumstantial evidence has simply grown too great. Put another way, the simplistic nature of the dismissals is not a match for the sophistication and volume of the evidence.

Seekers, Believers, and Nonbelievers: A Typology

In my experience, believers, agnostics, and nonbelievers come in a variety of flavors, six to be precise: three kinds of believers, two kinds of nonbelievers, and one category I will call the Seeker.

1. The Seeker is at the beginning of her investigation. She is open-minded, which means that she asks sincere questions and, being sufficiently detached from preconceived notions and committed to the truth, is willing to follow the answers to those questions wherever they lead. As she is at the beginning of her journey she is, of course, not yet committed to belief or disbelief. She exercises “healthy skepticism” but is not only willing to be convinced but willing to put effort into her own independent investigation.

2. The Rational Believer has seen or learned enough to be convinced, believes in their existence but continues to honor Occam’s Razor by looking to explain various situations first by ordinary means before resorting to the extraordinary: It’s a bear track until there’s no way it’s a bear track. It’s a coyote until there’s no way it could be a coyote.

3. The Knower is a subset of the Believer category, but he often eschews the term “belief” as insufficient. He does not need belief because he has encountered the creature first-hand in an unambiguous way. Full-time investigator James Fay, who claims having encountered a sasquatch of approximately ten feet, introduces himself by saying, “I’m not a believer; I’m a knower.”

4. In contrast to the Rational Believer, the Runaway Believer becomes so zealous and intoxicated by belief that anything and everything not immediately explained by something else obvious is a bigfoot. The sasquatch is everywhere and responsible for every broken tree limb, every carcass, every ambiguous impression in the mud.

5. The Skeptic simply says “show me.” His chief vice is laziness. The Skeptic, in my typology, prides himself on maintaining a sort of cynical pose and so, unlike the Seeker, he will not raise a finger to investigate a matter sincerely for himself. Rather he leaves the matter of investigation entirely to others, and the Believer must overwhelm him with iron-clad proof before he will be moved. But at least he can be converted if that overwhelming proof is indeed provided.

6. Denialists generally refuse to examine evidence at all. They group it with all other outrageous claims or forms of mythology: “I don’t spend my time investigating the reality of unicorns, the Easter Bunny, or Elvis, either.” When compelling evidence is thrust in front of their faces, they eschew Occam’s Razor and, in order to explain away a phenomenon they cannot make peace with, reach for explanations that are more outrageous than an extraordinary reality. They are the “irrational skeptics.”

For Denialists, no amount of photographic, video, or audio evidence, and no supporting evidence such as footprints, scat, hair, or the like, even in the aggregate, is sufficient proof. They cannot distinguish between the extraordinary and the impossible.

And yet, the telling detail is how this same group accepts, without any critical examination, outlandish explanations designed to dismiss the phenomenon. A costume artist claimed to have been hired to dress up in a suit for the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bluff Creek film. And to the Skeptic, it’s case closed, without any critical look at whether his claim squares with the evidence on screen — whether even a state-of-the-art costume in 1967 could achieve the effect of biologically realistic muscle groups flexing and bulging under the surface of the skin, whether such a costume could achieve the odd limb-to-torso ratio seen in the film, with knees and elbows bending at points impossible for any normal man, and whether the man claiming the hoax in such a costume could achieve the height of the creature, which has been established by multiple methods at well more than seven feet.

Likewise, Ray Wallace claimed to have commissioned some wooden feet and faked prints over a period of a years, and for the Skeptic and Denialist, that’s good enough to explain away all footprints everywhere. “Case closed!” the news anchors proclaimed. Never mind the appearance of the creatures over the entire North American continent since well before European contact. And does it matter to skeptics that the wooden feet don’t match any of the footprints that have been cast or photographed, let alone all of them?

This willingness to accept lame theories that supposedly explain away a persistent phenomenon (all UFOs are ball lightning or swamp gas) without real examination can only be explained as the result of three forces that are strong in the human condition and reveal themselves when humanity is challenged by either supernatural or preternatural experience: ignorance, arrogance, and fear. The circle of ignorance has already been described. Arrogance is manifested in the general assumption that our knowledge of the world around us is surely complete, that we are so clever and in control of our world that we are no longer capable of being surprised or astonished.

The fear is a subconscious misgiving that that arrogance might be unfounded. It is the fear that we humans are not the only game in town. The fear that if such a thing as the sasquatch were real, it would force a profound reexamination of just who we are in the cosmos, and how we should treat a creature that is not quite us (human) but perhaps not quite them (animal).

Another hallmark of the Denialist is his shifting criteria of proof. The Denialist asks, “Why are there no clear photos of a sasquatch?” Show him a clear photo and he says, “This is obviously a hoax?” Ask him why it is a hoax and he says, “It’s too clear. Only a hoax would be this clear.” Show him something less clear and he says, “Well this could be anything!” Whether consciously or subconsciously, he concocts criteria that can never be satisfied.

Tall, Dark, and Not So Handsome (What Are They?)

It would be easier to dismiss the phenomenon if descriptions of the sasquatch were all over the board. But the consistency of the sighting record on subtle physiological points, and the convergence of evidence from film, video, photos, audio, and tracks supporting those reports paints an ever more consistent picture of what we’re dealing with. It is neither Harry of Hendersons fame, nor the pissed-off monster of the Jack Links beef jerky commercials.

Among sasquatches, as among humans, there appears to be both conformity and individuality, and, we might conclude from the consistent reports of subtypes, some differentiation of breed/ethnicity, if not a differentiation of more than one cryptic species.

For a creature yet to be described by science, we have come to a remarkably comprehensive description based on thousands of witnesses and hundreds of pieces of photo, video, and track evidence. This is the picture that is emerging:

The sasquatch is, of course, a primate, and therefore not surprisingly exhibits classic primate physical and social characteristics. With the exception of their size, they appear to exist midway between ourselves and the great apes on a spectrum, physiologically, mentally, and socially. And the more we learn about their behavior, the more likely it seems that in some regards they resemble a very primitive version of ourselves.

  • A large hominid primate that walks upright but can go on all fours for greater speed. Adult females are 7-8 feet tall. Adult males are 8-10 feet.
  • Their bodies are covered in hair — as opposed to fur — 3 to 4 inches long. This hair comes in all shades of human hair: black to brown (most common), auburn, blond (rare), gray (probable elderly), and white (probable albinism).
  • They are characterized by huge bulk and muscle mass. Their shoulders are wider proportionately than humans’, their limbs are thicker, and their torsos appear as deep as wide. Breasts are apparent in females, external genitalia in males.
  • Their faces are characterized by a heavy brow ridge with hair growing from the brow ridge or just above it all the way up the forehead. The head often appears slightly coned, probably from a combination of the shape of the skull exaggerated by the upward-and-backward growth pattern of the hair, though many report longer hair on the heads of some.
  • The eyes are large, as would be expected of a primarily nocturnal creature, but are set so deeply beneath the brow ridge that they are difficult to see except from eye-shine at night. They appear without visible whites.
  • Their nose is small and flat relative to ours, but like ours is hooded, not upturned like those of the apes. There is speculation that this adaptation allows them to swim, in contrast to other great apes. This feature, perhaps more than any other, probably adds to the perception of their faces as “human-like.”
  • Their faces are are usually described as flat, indicating a nose that is vanishingly small in profile relative to ours, but often broad and with large nostrils.
  • Their upper lip is longer than ours and has no cupid’s bow. The mouth is often described simply as a long, level slit, hard to distinguish unless open. Some report pronounced canine teeth.
  • Their jaw is heavy and set slightly forward but not to the extent of the apes’ prognathism.
  • Their skin is typically gray to black in color, which, for the black-haired ones, creates the effect of uniform color head-to-toe.
  • At a distance the most prominent difference from humans, aside from this uniformity of color, is the length of the arms relative to the rest of the body. Whereas humans’ arms are approximately 40 percent of total height, the arms of the sasquatch are some 60 percent of height, likely both a forest and a quadrupedal adaptation. Arm length is the fastest way to separate a hoax from an authentic sighting. The relative proportions of the limbs and the torso are exceedingly hard to fake, especially on video, as the joints would have to be placed at points nearly impossible for a human in costume to make look convincing.
  • When upright, the creature appears to slouch, holding its round-shouldered body at about a 15-degree angle.
  • Its head often appears quite small in relation to its massive shoulders and torso, and its large trapezius muscles attaching at ear level give the appearance of no neck when viewed from the front or back.
  • Like so many of its other traits, its hands appear to be transitioning from those of the great apes to our own, with a thumb that is only slightly opposable.
  • The sasquatch’s feet, which first betrayed its existence to popular culture, are remarkably human in form, the big toe having migrated fully into alignment with the others as opposed to the opposable big toe of the apes. While the top of the foot is hairy, the sole is covered by a thick gray pad, the better for trampling sticks, gravel, and other rough terrain. These “Ostman’s pads” were first described by Albert Ostman, who reported having a multi-day encounter in 1924.
  • However, the feet differ from humans not only in size but in their apparent internal structure. They do not have a ball and arch, but are flat and apparently have a “mid-tarsal break” that allows the back of the foot to move vertically independent of the front. This break, as well as flat-footedness, is present in other great apes. When walking in mud, this hinge results in a signature “pressure ridge,” a lateral hump across the width of the footprint created by the push-off of the forefoot after the lifting of the heel.
  • Lastly, another oft-reported trait is a strong, overwhelming stench. Theories abound, but it is so universal and so strong that it seems it must be the result of a gland not unlike a skunk’s. Witnesses often smell them before they see them. Anthropologist Jeff Meldrum reports that great apes have glands in their arm pits that can likewise give off strong smells.

It is no wonder that a creature so perfectly poised between the rest of the animal kingdom and humans is unsettling to us. Many have described it as a chimera — half man, half ape, but this is only because we have apes as a reference point. The first explorer to encounter the great apes of Africa might well have described them as “half man, half monkey,” and so forth down the tree of life. It seems to simply fill a gap on that tree between apes and men, and, as such, offers fascinating insights into our own evolution, the transition from arborealism to earthbound bipedalism, communication techniques, and even the beginnings of structures.

Many tracks and sightings occur near crude structures of snapped limbs — ground nests not unlike the gorilla’s, but also lean-to’s that appear to serve as shelters. Other teepee-like stick structures appear to mark territorial boundaries or perhaps act as signposts leading the way home. They appear to use broken sticks and rocks to communicate with each other in clacks and knocks and to hurl at intruders. But they appear to have no real tools nor to use fire. This line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom appears to remain bright. Developmentally, they appear to exist just before the dawn of culture.

Masters of Avoidance

If the sasquatch exists, then it has successfully evolved in parallel to homo sapiens, a species that has either out-competed or killed off all other competitor hominids. Therefore, by definition, its greatest evolutionary adaptation must be elusiveness itself.

The sasquatch seems to achieve this uncanny avoidance of humans in several ways.

  • First and foremost, by living where humans typically don’t: in steep, mountainous terrain or in thick cover, and preferably both. They seem to understand what constitutes natural barriers to humans and put as many of those between us and them as possible while still eeking out a living. While there have been numerous sightings on the fringes of human development — rural and occasionally even suburban — the vast majority of sightings have been deep within wilderness, the classic case being along logging roads, which penetrate the deepest. I have noted that most sightings seem to be within or just outside of national forests, not surprising as they allow for that combination of maximum isolation and maximum cover. Life in the mountains and at northern latitudes would be aided partly by their hair but more so by their gigantism, which accords with established biological laws such as Bergmann’s Rule. This holds that animals, even within a type, are larger at northern latitudes than southern. Larger objects have lower surface-to-volume ratios than smaller objects even of identical shapes. The bigger the body, the better the retention of body heat, a law that surely drove similar gigantism during the Pleistocene. (Perhaps sasquatches are to humans as wooly mammoths are to elephants.)
  • The second pillar of their elusiveness is achieved by hunting, foraging, and moving primarily at night; this distinction alone would be a highly effective segregator of humans and sasquatches. Many humans fancy themselves night owls, but watching late-night TV on a couch is quite different from hiking across rainy mountain passes and ambushing game at 3 a.m.

Simply living where we aren’t and being active when we’re not would account for most of the remarkable fact that our scientific institutions have never obtained a specimen. Aside from these two dominant factors, there are others that apparently veil them from us when we inevitably do cross paths:

  • Camouflage. Researchers have noted how their hair coloring and texture, and even the difficulty of making out a face because of the uniformity of color, all aid in their ability to hide from us in plain sight.
  • Statuism. One of the most effective hiding strategies appears to be their ability to stand, squat or sit motionless at the drop of a hat. It’s been suggested that they evolved symbiotically with trees, and much of their hiding strategy involves blending into trees and even mimicking trees, standing stock-still, their coned heads looking for all the world at fifty feet like the top of a snag. The term “tree peeking” has been coined for a sort of fluid peek-a-boo hiding behavior seen on video and in thermal night images, and several have been filmed waving fronds in front of their faces in an apparent attempt to draw the eye to the frond instead of what’s waving it.
  • Arborealism. Juveniles apparently live in trees (see New York state baby video), above our normal field of vision, where their long strong arms, obvious forest adaptations, allow them the life of a gibbon. Naturally the great size for which they’re destined prevents them from staying up there past adolescence, so it’s easy to imagine a period of training whereby they’re taught the ways of effective hiding before the they reach a size that keeps them earthbound. However, adults have been reported coming down out of trees that are up for the task of supporting 600-900 pounds.
  • Aquaticism. While great apes cannot swim, it’s been suggested that the sasquatch’s hooded nose, like ours, allows it to. This would open up a world of mobility not available to other great apes. They could not only traverse streams and rivers but could swim through swamps and across lakes, perhaps between islands. This ability would open up vast wild areas of Canada, for instance, where the chances for contact with humans would be vanishingly small.

Put together, all of these factors — isolation through terrain, cover, elevation, latitude, nocturnal activity, camouflage, statuism, arborealism, and aquaticism — begin to shed light on how it might be possible for a highly intelligent and very versatile creature, whose very evolution has been driven by the need to avoid detection by men, to have escaped scientific cataloguing for two centuries.

Biggest Misconceptions

In struggling to understand how all this could be, it’s instructive to consider the biggest misconceptions about this subject.

1. That there is one creature. In 2012, a Fox News morning show hosted Cliff Barackman of the Animal Planet program Finding Bigfoot, and the jumping off point for the interview, was “Researchers believe there is more than one Bigfoot,” as if that were some startling new revelation.

It should go without saying that if a creature is real, then it is a member of a species with a breeding population — with males, females, and juveniles of all sizes. Belief in the sasquatch does not require belief in anything supernatural. New agers who have tried to co-opt the sasquatch by suggesting it’s related to UFO phenomena or inter-dimensional travel have done massive harm to the cause of what is a purely scientific, zoological subject, albeit a spectacular one. Its remarkable size and elusiveness notwithstanding, the sasquatch is a flesh-and-blood animal, which means that in the end it conforms strictly to biological laws. Moreover, it is by definition a primate, by which we can assume it conforms to numerous laws of primate behavior and physiology, such as that it lives in family groups, cares for and carries its young in certain ways, and so on. And, like us, it is by zoological definition a great ape, by which we can infer even more specific things about its probable diet, communication techniques, territoriality, and so on.

Ironically, bigfoot enthusiasts themselves are to blame for much of this misconception by their continual use of the singular form. “Bigfeet” doesn’t sound quite right as a plural, but “bigfoots” sounds even less correct. The terms bigfoot and sasquatch seem to have established themselves in our linguistic consciousness as singular entities, just as many people will refer to any and all policemen as “Johnny Law” or to any chauffeur as “James.” This is reinforced by capitalization, so that it becomes parallel to other singular legendary creatures, like Babe the Big Blue Ox, or Nessie (who, if real also stands for any member of a breeding population, whose various members have been sighted alone over centuries and therefore taken on a singular identity, “Nessie,” instead of “the nessies”).

On the back cover of Dr. Jeff Meldrum’s excellent book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, we find the headline: “Does sasquatch exist?” Note the singular formulation, even from one of the greatest minds on the subject (or at least from his publisher). We wouldn’t ask, “Does horse exist?” or “Does dog exist?” For this reason, I try to use either the plural “sasquatches,” in which case it would be “Do sasquatches exist?” or when discussing the species “the sasquatch,” while also lowercasing it. (You can always test usage by substituting “horse.”)

This widespread misconception that bigfoot is a single creature may be most to blame for people dismissing it out of hand.

2. That they are limited to the Pacific Northwest. While the Northwest has been the site of the most famous encounters, most people are surprised to learn that there have been sasquatch reports in 49 states and throughout Canada. (If they put a premium on solitude, then Canada almost certainly supports more of them.) Sighting maps show concentrated activity from the lower Rockies and Sierras up through the Cascades and all the way into Alaska, throughout Canada, from Minnesota and down through the forested Midwest, across the Great Lakes to Maine all the way down the Appalachians and into Florida, where it has been known for generations as “the skunk ape,” and west as far as East Texas, reports largely ceasing wherever annual rainfall drops below 40 inches. Forestation, not necessarily mountains, seems to be the common denominator of its habitat. Indeed, if the sighting record is to be believed, millions of Americans and Canadians are within a two-hour drive of a small family group at this moment.

Moreover, there is compelling video evidence of their existence in Poland and Russia, and of course, the numerous reports of the Asian yeti, which in the mid-20th century first stirred Americans’ popular interest in the subject of a living non-human biped.

3. That it is a solitary animal. Many assume that because most reports describe a single individual that they are essentially solitary animals. Experts believe, and primatology would predict, that they move in small family groups, and that for every animal that is seen, there are probably several others hiding nearby. The growing sighting and video record bears this out. Living in small groups as opposed to large ones would be one clear evolutionary adaptation allowing easier avoidance of humans. One intriguing area of research would be what the upper limit of groups would be. In 2008, researchers uncovered a colony of 125,000 lowland gorillas in a Congo swamp, immediately doubling the number of these gorillas thought to exist. There is not enough remote cover to support anything on this order for the sasquatch, but it is intriguing to consider a group of even a few dozen of them living in a virtually unreachable hanging valley or high basin in Alaska or northern Canada.

4. That it is a dangerous monster. Whether the sasquatch constitutes a monster is subjective. As to whether they are dangerous we have a significant amount of data to go on. When humans encounter sasquatches there are several common reactions by the creatures:

Retreating. Usually, they simply walk away nonplussed and within a few moments are too far into cover to be seen anymore.

Hiding. If they believe they have not been seen yet, they exhibit hiding behavior, usually standing behind trees and peeking periodically or squatting in brush or behind logs or boulders.

Intimidating. In accordance with great ape behavior, when they feel their territory or young are being threatened they will harass and intimidate intruders. This often includes throwing rocks from a hidden position, paralleling hikers to “escort” them out of an area, screaming, grunting, oofing, and tree snapping.

Spying. Despite their elusiveness, they seem to have the primate’s signature curiosity, and there is ample video evidence of them spying on human activities such as campfires, sledding, or shooting ranges from what they believe are hidden vantage points.

What is certain is that if they wanted to harm humans, they easily could do so. Their overwhelming size, strength, and speed would make short work of us small, spindly, smooth types. It must be assumed that part of their survival instinct includes avoiding not only contact with humans but conflict as well. I am not aware of any report of a sasquatch killing a human or even attacking one except at a distance with rocks, while there are several reports of sasquatches being shot accidentally by hunters or under the pretense of self defense, an unfortunate but understandable reaction during a moment of extreme shock and fear.

Though physically intimidating in the extreme, fortunately for us it is clear that they are far less dangerous than a common bear. This is far from saying they are not scary. Overwhelming fear is a nearly universal human reaction to an encounter, one so basic that it often commandeers the reaction of even the most curious and adventurous personalities. One witness, who had pulled over in the wee hours of the morning on a road near Lake Conroe north of Houston when he encountered one, reported shaking for two straight days. In this video shot in Colorado, you can hear genuine fear in the voice of a woman watching something she is trying to process. (We cannot know if the subject of this video is authentic, but the reaction certainly seems to be.) Even dogs, renowned for their aggression, run and cower uncharacteristically; this instinct appears to be richly justified in dogs as some have turned up dead in proximity to sasquatch sightings. With apologies to Orwell, the sasquatch rule of thumb appears to be “Two legs bad, four legs food.”

With the exception of its occasional curiosity, it seems the sasquatch’s highest aspiration is to be left alone.

5. That they’re a recent discovery. There is much evidence that humans have had a very long, uneasy relationship with these, our country cousins. Indeed, the cataloguing of the sasquatch may constitute the most protracted “discovery” in our history. No less venerable a document than the Book of Genesis mentions “giants in the earth” (the Nephilim). One of the main characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, is a hirsute wild man. The oldest classic of the English language, Beowulf, places an outsized bipedal monster, “Grendel,” in Denmark. And on it goes, all the way through to the wookie of Star Wars.

Some are fond of ascribing these mythic literary recurrences to Jungian archetypes, ancient mental forms projected into literature from our collective subconscious. But who is to say the kernels of archetypes themselves are not real memories trickling down to us from eons-old run-ins with these creatures? Whatever the case, it seems likely that this is not our first rodeo with the bigfoot.

Why do I care?

I admit that the sasquatch is an unusual topic to occupy the thoughts and the time of a grown man and a city-dwelling white-collar professional. Any enthusiast of a preternatural topic admits it at some risk to his own reputation, and at the very least lays himself open to ribbing by some and eye-rolling or gossip by others. But the volume of literature and TV shows on paranormal topics betrays a huge, if closeted, audience interested in such things.

In a world brimming with pressing issues — starvation and disease, political chaos, international economic crises, climate change, and energy decline — what does this really matter?

For me, the sasquatch mystery is endlessly fascinating for three reasons: First is pure curiosity and wonder. I’m grateful we live in a world where there are still a few mysteries left, and frankly I don’t understand anyone who is not fascinated by this. I’ve wondered whether, in some divine scheme, mysteries like this aren’t meted out to act as intellectual catnip for humanity, teasing our intellect along one maddening question at a time in order to stimulate our own development.

We’re accustomed to going through our days with our thoughts occupied by the pettiness of political races, celebrity hookups and divorces, what the Dow did since noon, weight-loss plans.

Then, one discovers that ten-foot hairy monsters actually exist, and suddenly the rest of it just doesn’t seem that interesting anymore. I often chuckle at myself during the day, riding the bus to work, sitting alone at lunch, head bowed during a worship service, or listening to an erudite lecture, and there it comes, a bigfoot walking along in a Homer Simpson thought bubble. It is never far. Eventually, even obsessions have their ebb and flow, but once you’ve internalized this reality, once you really believe, what passes for “general interest” in the flow of daily life has an increasingly hard time competing.

A corollary to this pure fascination is a natural hunger for discovery. Ours is a world in which every dent and bulge of the globe has been mapped to a fare-thee-well. Every continent has been not only charted, but much of it sold and fenced off. True discovery seems as though it has been pushed either out to deep space or down to the esoteric realm of quantum physics — either way, to places inaccessible to the average Joe.

But here, suddenly, we find a spectacular mystery, nothing subtle about it, something crying out for exploration that certainly doesn’t require a graduate degree to appreciate. Geographic discoveries having been exhausted, adventure has migrated to the zoological frontier. And if part of it attracts the soul of the explorer, another part calls to the soul of the prospector. Any person in the right place at the right time can make a substantial contribution to our body of knowledge, if not land the mother lode — a body itself. Moreover, this frontier is a highly democratic one. No need for wealthy benefactors to fly you to the Himalayas or Africa. It is neither a rich man’s game nor one requiring substantial travel; most Americans regardless of means are right now within a few hours drive of a mind-blowing, society-shaking discovery. All of this swirls to strengthen the allure.

Second, I think the sooner we arrive at a shared understanding of what these creatures are and where they fit into the tree of life, the better chance that they will survive what is surely the greatest test of their existence, the encroachment of humans into their final refuges. With the widespread establishment of large national forests and a burgeoning ethos of conservationism, there’s reason to hope that they might have already weathered our worst.

The third reason I care is the most abstract but perhaps most important. This fascinates me because of the light it sheds on the process of belief and disbelief, extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence. Whether the subject is preternatural, as with bigfoots and UFOs, or supernatural, as with belief in God and spirit, the process of seeking truth is much the same. Our response to a sudden challenge of our view of the world and our place in it is both fascinating and instructive.

In this and all matters that test our frame of reference, I believe …

  1. We should keep an open mind. This does not mean believing everything we hear, or blindly believing anything we hear. Rather this means asking questions in a methodical way and following the answers wherever they may lead.
  2. We should be slow to accuse people of lying, and, especially when they have lived their lives in a way that gives us no reason to suspect them, give them the benefit of the doubt. When these people number in the hundreds, or in the thousands, and hail from all walks of life, this too should be weighed. Likewise we should be slow to dismiss the historical memory of indigenous people. For American Indians, America was not discovered by Christopher Columbus; it was discovered by them when they traversed the Bering land bridge some 15-20,000 years earlier. Likewise, for First Nations people in general, the sasquatch is not in need of being “discovered.” Many are Knowers. They know it to exist and do not need the validation of the scientific arm of Western civilization to certify it into reality. Not that we should give scientific credence to any and all beliefs around the world, no matter how mythological. But the mounting evidence, including the eye-witness testimony of modern Native Americans that accords with their own ancestral traditions, should give us pause.
  3. We should be modest about our knowledge of the world and recognize the astounding discoveries being made every day.
  4. We should be modest about our dominion over that world. We’ve done our worst to pave every inch of it, but it’s still wilder and bigger than we think.

There’s every reason to believe that sightings will not only continue apace but will grow in number and frequency as our own numbers grow, and that the quality of evidence will improve with the march of technology.

And when at long last the debate suffocates under the weight of evidence, and we transition from the age of evidence to the age of proof, we should approach the subject with respect and with awe. As one retired Oklahoma forester Charles Branson put it, “We’ve studied them for a lot of years and know their habits pretty well. … If you see one, just admire it. They’re part of the good Lord’s creation.”

* * *


Below are links to what I consider the most interesting examples of video and photographic evidence. One might wave these off at first glance as hoaxes. The sasquatch’s very proximity to the human form makes this a tempting claim. But closer examination and viewing these alongside known hoaxes helps distinguish them as likely specimens:

We start with the gold standard, the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967, what is surely one of the most analyzed pieces of footage in natural history. Though several parties have made competing claims of having hoaxed this footage, it appears that the only hoaxes are the claims of hoaxes. The size of the creature has been confirmed independently multiple times, incorporating landmarks and reenactments using the trackway left by the subject, as over seven feet tall. A digital reconstruction and animation of the subject’s skeleton shows that the limb-to-torso ratios are non-human. Numerous painstaking analyses argue for the film’s authenticity, but the layman can easily see the muscle groups rippling under the hair, including a hernia apparent in the right thigh. The preponderance of evidence gleaned from numerous independent studies argues overwhelmingly in favor of this film’s authenticity. This is a real and uncatalogued animal, and as such, this film represents one of the most important natural history artifacts of all time:

Patterson-Gimlin Film

This segment from a TV show features a 1994 video shot by Paul Freeman in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington:

Freeman Footage

This is high-quality video from 2008 of an unknown ape-like creature high in a tree in a Maine forest. If this is a sasquatch, it is a juvenile. Some dismiss it as a porcupine:

Maine Tree Creature

Game camera trap, Greenbrier, West Virginia. 2011

Greenbrier Subject

Jacobs camera trap subject. Likely juvenile. Pennsylvania, 2008.

Jacobs Subject

A huge curated collection of photos and videos with analysis can be found at the Facebook group “Find Bigfoot.” (Not associated with the TV show Finding Bigfoot.

Finally, just for fun, here is poster collage I made using the many plausible photographs of the creatures.


“Don’t be afraid to take your children with you next time you go on a hiking trip.”

          –Laurence Parent, Hiking Texas

“If children are pushed too hard, not only will they (and you) be miserable but they also may develop a long-term aversion to hiking and the outdoors.”

            –Laurence Parent, Hiking Texas, Two Sentences Later

I’ll admit that a dominant theme of my parenting might be my impatience with the length of the human maturation period, or, put in a more positive way, my enthusiasm for having our boys experience all the world has to offer, right away.

Six months after our national parks hat-trick in the Rockies, I learned that with my new university job came the splendid benefit of a full week off between Christmas and New Year’s. I learned this about a month before Christmas and floated an idea to Kirstin while washing dishes one evening: “I figure we can all either sit around the house for a week and get on each other’s nerves, or we could create some memories.”

We had had such a great time on our national parks tour that summer, naturally I thought a sequel would be a no-brainer, and since we had neither the lead time nor the money for another major cross-continent expedition, the obvious choice was the national park nearest to us, Big Bend, an eight-hour drive west and south.

She received my suggestion politely, but a day turned into three, and the topic didn’t come up again. When a week passed, I figured a full family trip was not in the cards. But by that time, I had moved on to another intriguing idea: Big Bend might just be my long-sought backcountry trip with Andrew, 9, and Cameron, 7.

No sooner had we returned from Yellowstone six months earlier than I had decided that backcountry camping — that is, camping with everything you need strapped to your back (I’d guessed that’s the etymology) — was for me, and by me I mean us, and by us I mean them, the boys.

While car camping was fun and had its place, there was a disconnect between what it claimed to be and what it was. One usually thinks of camping as the act of “getting away from it all,” and part of that “all” is other people. But the reality is that when we go camping, we go from the relative seclusion of our quiet suburban lots to scenes that look like NASCAR tailgating, tent manufacturer conventions, or middle-class refugee camps. Too often we drive sixty or a hundred miles into the countryside to pitch a tent seven feet away from other campers. These might be perfectly delightful or, they might spend the evening listening to their car stereo and cursing like drunken sailors as your children try to fall asleep. It’s a game of chance.

And car camping just barely counts as outdoors. Because we are only limited by the amount of crap we can fit into our car or, in my case, the back of a Ford F-150 pickup, it is all too easy to take the kitchen sink, to basically recreate your home for a day in the middle of the woods, again, seven feet from the next guy doing the same.

But this backcountry business — this was a purer form of camping. This was the original camping. The camping of John Muir and John Colter. This was the descendant of frontiersmanship, the heir to the pioneering spirit of Lewis and Clark, Boone and Crockett. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but this thinking simply followed a long pattern of my rejecting the easy path in favor of the supposed superiority of the difficult or more primitive: bow hunting over hunting with firearms, hand tools over power tools, hand-crank ice cream clearly better than electric, homemade anything better than store-bought anything.

So on a family trip that took us south of Austin, I carjacked us and steered into a massive parking lot that resembled that of an airport. We were at Cabela’s, the Mecca of outfitting. After an hour of hemming and hawing, I walked out with a backpacker’s fuel stove and burner, a package of freeze-dried beef stroganof, and one of the largest backpacks they sold, the 90-liter. They even threw in a handsome pair of collapsible, spring-loaded walking sticks as part of the special. I knew I had it bad for Cabela’s when I signed up for their credit card to get 10 percent knocked off the purchase and came out sporting a gimme hat.

In addition to its other virtues, such as the greatly increased athleticism it requires and the access it gives you to secluded and pristine scenes of nature experienced by few others, hiking and backcountry camping has another less-considered benefit: it forces one to really take the measure of one’s material needs.

Human nature dictates that we surround ourselves with comfort, and so to take something with us that will address every contingency. Better take a poncho in case it rains. Shorts in case it’s hotter than expected, and every conceivable combination of layers to maximize comfort in any climate. Binoculars in case some rare bird alights a hundred yards off. Food, of course, usually way more than needed lest we risk a single moment of hunger or unfulfilled hankering of any kind. Sun screen, and chapstick, and aspirin, and something with caffeine for the morning to avoid a headache. And so on.

When you’re not only planning for yourself but for your children, the list grows exponentially. I can live with a little sun, but if the kids get sunburned and spike a fever, I have the massive guilt of having endangered them as well as the justified thumbs-down of their mother.

But of course, this is car-camping mentality. In backcountry, every single thing you choose to bring — be it for comfort or safety — must be weighed against, well, its weight. Because it all adds up to a crushing load. A war is waged in the mind of the backcountry novice, a war between the fear of encountering some need in the wilderness, including needs that can mean life or death like enough water, and the fear of loading oneself down so much that the whole journey turns to misery. The most serious backcountry hikers have it down to such a science that they even cut the handles off their toothbrushes to shave a quarter ounce off their load. It’s a highly enlightening exercise made even more so when carried out in the context of the most materialistic society the world has ever known.

I had decided to start my backcountry career with a very modest outing with our oldest son, Andrew, who was a spunky, sturdy 9. I selected a primitive section of a nearby state park. We would walk in for 3.5 miles, camp overnight, and walk out on the other side of the 7-mile loop the next morning, reward ourselves with an extravagant lunch, and return home victorious by early afternoon. We talked about it excitedly and prepared for weeks as the temperature continued to hover above three digits every day during what turned out to be the hottest summer in any state in American history.

At last, the days began to shorten and the mercury dipped just enough that I decided it was time. It was Sunday afternoon, the eve of Labor Day. “We’re finally on our way, Andrew!” I said, pounding my steering wheel with joy as we pulled out of our neighborhood onto the highway. “Nothing on earth can stop us now!”

But an hour later, as we neared the entrance to the park, something did stop us. We were turned away by state troopers and a huge and growing cloud of smoke overhead. We were witnessing the birth of what would become known as the Labor Day Bastrop County Complex Wildfire, an inferno that would burn for three weeks, claim more than 800 homes, devastate the Lost Pines area of Central Texas for a generation, and go down as one of the worst wildfires in Texas history.

In the moment, though, it was simply the thing that had denied us our first backcountry experience.

I was astounded to find that Bastrop State Park was really the only public backcountry camping option I could identify within 100 mile radius. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but it says something profound about our society when you have to get in a car and drive more than three hours just to pick a patch of ground, set up a tent, and do nothing. What would the world have been like before every scintilla of wilderness was spoken for and fenced off with a threatening sign, and, if public, was so highly regulated that you were prosecuted if you stepped foot off the trail or pitched a tent a foot outside the designated 12 x 12-foot tent pad? If Woody Guthrie could pen “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940, imagine his indignation today.

Anyway, three weeks later, Andrew and I tried again by driving four hours into East Texas to hike in and camp one night on the Lone Star Trail, but the same drought that had fueled the Bastrop fire had prompted the Forest Service to ban all backcountry camping in the Sam Houston National Forest as well. We stayed in a campsite and got a 7-mile hike in the following morning.

When the Christmas break came and we set our sights on Big Bend, one hike above all of the many we could have done beckoned: the South Rim. For years I had been noticing that all of the most scenic pictures from Big Bend — on travel guides, parks and wildlife magazines, books — all carried the same caption: “View from the South Rim of the Chisos Basin.” The hike to the South Rim was No. 1 in my newly purchased book on Texas hiking, the author noting, “This is probably the classic Texas hike.” I read that entry almost to the point of memorization, and practically every other write-up I could locate. I read a 50-page PDF on it published on the Park Service website. My point is, I did my homework. Bear this in mind, gentle reader, as we go forward.

Indeed I prepared nearly nonstop for a month. If I wasn’t reading, I was worrying over the details in other ways. A South Texas boy with little stomach for cold, I was bound and determined that whatever else happened, we were not going to suffer through a cold mountain night.

But neither did I relish the thought of buying all new everything. So I made a study of what it would take to upgrade our sleeping bags, most of which were rated only down to 40 degrees F, to something that would insulate us from mountain air in winter. I read up on how animals, through their fur, use dead-air zones, almost microscopic, to create an envelope of compounding body heat. And I looked for material I could use to line our sleeping bags with. The hottest thing I could think of that I owned was a pair of slippers with a fleecy lining. No matter how arctic the floor got, I could never keep them on for more than ten minutes before kicking them off my sweaty dogs. Surely, whatever the inside of those were made of would keep us warm.

At Hancock Fabrics, I found a bolt of tan synthetic fleece and bought the whole thing. Back at home, I opened the boys’ sleeping bags up, custom cut the fleece to match the inside, and told them to bed down in them for a test. Kirstin looked at my mother, who was visiting in the days before Christmas, shook her head and they shared a laugh at the scene. I didn’t care if it looked funny, we weren’t going to be cold.

If I wasn’t concerned enough, the following day my mother stopped me in the middle of the living room and said, “You know, this is horrible, but I thought recently about something that happened when I was in high school. There were a couple of boys from Lubbock that went camping out on the Caprock, got caught by a surprise norther, and froze to death. FROZE TO DEATH!” she repeated.

It’s one of those things a grandmother is simply compelled by nature to say, and I neither held it against her nor blew up in a defensive rage. I did point out, though, that the Caprock Escarpment was five hundred miles north of our destination, and that Big Bend’s latitude was one of the reasons I had picked it for a December trip to the mountains in the first place.

On the eve of our trip, I spent the entire day making lists, packing, and double-checking our supplies. Honestly, if we hadn’t gone on this trip, I don’t know what else I might have accomplished during the winter break. I could have recorded an album. I could have written three chapters of a book or remodeled a bedroom. At one point, instead of a mere list, I created an exploded diagram of what I wanted the boys to wear, illustrating each layer radiating out in turn like assembly instructions for toilet guts or light fixtures.

The exploded diagram included a few items I felt we needed but didn’t have yet. But, restrained by the infamous sticker shock of outfitting, we mostly made do with found items. Instead of pricey new longjohns on their bottom halves, the boys would wear Andrew’s black soccer socks, which reached their mid-thighs, making them look like 1880s San Francisco whores as they paraded through the house in their underwear and thigh-highs. Above the waist, they would wear fleecy pajama tops, Sponge Bob and Star Wars, respectively, under long-sleeve swim shirts as their insulating layer. We would make this work.

* * *

I had set the alarm for 3:45 a.m. the following morning, but didn’t need it. The combination of excitement and worry made for light sleeping, and I was up at 3:20, coaxing the boys out of their bunks. We drove for four hours before eating breakfast in Ozona, then pressing on west, then south into the high desert of the Big Bend country. After paying our way into the park and checking in at the backcountry office with a ranger named Heather, we arrived in the impressive Chisos Basin around 1 p.m., feverishly eating our peanut butter sandwiches before leaving civilization behind.

As instructed, we parked near an amphitheater about 15 minutes downhill from the main trailhead, which was situated behind the visitor center.

We strapped all of our stuff on, surveyed the back of the car for anything we might have missed, and as we strode away from the car, I laid out of a few ground rules. First, whatever else happened, we would stay together. We came up with a system in which I, usually in front, would say “Sound off! One!” then Andrew chimed in “Two!” followed by Cameron’s soprano, “Three!” As we walked we devised other threesomes we could use: “Peanut! … Butter! … Jelly!” “Snap! … Crackle! … Pop!” and so forth.

Immediately, and I mean immediately, I realized we were in for more than I had bargained for. Just the trail to the trailhead was hard-going, consisting not of hard-packed dirt nor of crushed granite like the trails we were used to, but of millions of jagged rocks that lubricated each others movement to form the sensation that you were walking up a slide, each step achieving only about 80 percent of the progress it should. A fire was immediately lit within my thighs and buttocks that would burn non-stop for the remainder of the day. My state-of-the-art backpack, which I had tried on fully loaded numerous times in the months-long run-up to this moment, now cut into my shoulders and collar bones.

After ten hard minutes up the trail toward the visitor center, I realized I had left our campsite permit on the front seat of the car. But after this very significant initial effort, I certainly wasn’t going to make the boys hike back down to the car and then repeat this climb. So I left them and my pack under a tree and briskly — almost at a jog — walked down to the car, so light already that I felt I was floating.

This was, of course, literally less than ten minutes after I had preached my fiery sermon to them on the theme of staying together no matter what. When I realized this, I concluded it surely would be faster back to them if I moved the car up to the top of this trail. I’d beg forgiveness from park officials later, and heaven knows we’d appreciate not having to walk those 15 extra minutes down to the car at the weary end of the trip. I moved the car up to the visitor center and locked it again. But there were at least five trailheads leading in different directions down from the lodge, none of them marked “Amphitheater.” Panicked, I jogged back and forth like a ninny between them.

Not wanting to guess wrong, I jogged into the visitor center and was greeted at the door by a life-sized model of a mountain lion, which are much bigger than you’d think. Oh, God! I thought, less than 10 minutes in and I’ve abandoned my boys in mountain lion country! I breathlessly asked the park ranger to point me to the trail to the amphitheater. As I entered the trail, I saw Cameron sitting with my pack almost immediately; we had been within 50 yards of the visitor center. In the six minutes I had been gone, Andrew had, of course, left Cameron to come down to the parking lot and find me when he figured I had been gone too long. It was all like some bad dream, in which one well-intentioned decision sets events in motion that just cascade and cascade farther and farther out of your control, and you go from making a grill-cheese sandwich to ordering a nuclear strike in about five steps.

Fortunately, Andrew was just around the bend and we were soon reunited and headed uphill again. I gathered myself and reemphasized the importance of staying together, though all my moral authority on this point was long gone. I was physically and emotionally drained, and we were not yet even to the trailhead — to the beginning of the hike proper! Was this an omen that we should try something less ambitious? Or was it a Providential innocculation, a small reminder in a relatively harmless setting that I’d better really bring my A game?

A bathroom break. A trail map purchase. And a quick conversation with the white-mustachioed park ranger, who asked, “Where are you trying to make it to?”

“We have a site reserved near the South Rim,” I replied.

He smiled serenely, “Better get a move on. You got a flashlight, right?”

Passing through the complex consisting of a low-slung lodge, visitor center, store, and restaurant, we found the trailhead and at long last were on the real trail to the South Rim.

Almost immediately we started uphill again, picking our way carefully through a minefield of jagged, differently sized granite and slate-colored rocks that slid against each other, making it virtually impossible to not twist an ankle. This was really the first major reality that had not been conveyed in the many guidebooks and online descriptions of the trail I had read. If you hired someone to come up with a more dangerous surface to walk up and down a mountain on, they could scarcely do better than this. If the trail had been made of greased broken glass and rusty nails it would have been infinitely easier going.

When we had trod for about fifteen minutes, most of it climbing through switchbacks, Andrew complained of his pack bothering him, and complained in a way I could tell was only going to get worse. Not wanting to take out a second mortgage on our house for this trip, I had decided that their L.L. Bean school backpacks were sufficient, and while they had no belts to shift the weight from the shoulders to the hips, they did have clips that held the shoulder straps together in the front, and we had done plenty of dry runs around the house. I had even taken Cameron on a forced march around the neighborhood carrying a full thermos of water in his pack and his sleeping bag bungeed atop it.

No sooner had I loaded Andrew’s pack on top of mine, hoisted the whole ridiculous affair onto my middle-aged back, clicked top and bottom, and taken twelve more burning steps up the trail, than my own sleeping bag unraveled and slid onto the rocks. I summoned everything in my higher nature to arrest the stream of foul language trying to escape my lips.

Not only had we gotten a late start for the South Rim, we were making the worst time in park history. What with the baby steps and the multiple clinics on how not to bungee your equipment together, Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball would have been passing us.

“Dad,” Andrew said, “if it’s too much stress, we don’t have to go.” God, how I loved this fourth grader.

Still, I didn’t know if he was being thoughtful or clever — if perhaps he and Cameron had already turned against the expedition in a soft mutiny and were simply doing a Jedi mind trick to get me to turn back. I continued to work with my load. I unfolded my sleeping bag and rolled it back up so that it was twice the width and half the girth, a splendidly stabilizing trick I would repeat in time with both of the boys’ packs. As I worked on stoically, Andrew spoke again: “You’re a determined dad! That’s one reason I like you.”

Well, if I had been vacillating as to whether or not to prosecute this hike, that comment sealed it. What else could I have done after a comment like that but press on?

This was the point at which it felt we really stepped out on the limb, the backcountry limb.

I had experienced this sensation with Andrew in Sam Houston National Forest, and it is the essence of backcountry — that every step you take away from the car is a step farther out on that limb. And the farther you go, the narrower your margin for error. A thousand things could go wrong out here, even without a mountain lion encounter, and all it would take is one of them — one — to turn an afternoon stroll into a mountain rescue situation. We were working without a net. It’s one thing by yourself and something else when you’re caring for two of the three most precious things on earth, not only to you, but to about five other people. But in the final analysis, all of life is a limb. There are no guarantees. No absolute safety. No bright line between enrichment and endangerment. It’s all a numbers game — a game of odds.

At one extreme of the spectrum is the completely foolhardy, negligent parent who fails to provide the least measure of security or common-sense boundaries. And we saw enough parenting that approached this to know that this way lies the collapse of civilization. But at the other extreme is the Boy in the Bubble — the one who’s never allowed a single step out on that limb for fear of cold germs, pollen, crazy drivers, peanut dust, bullying, perverts, gluten. That life, it seems to me, is not really much of a life at all. Somewhere in the middle we tried to strike the balance, hold on to the golden mean, the middle path, not so far out on that branch that it snapped and the cradle did fall, but far enough out for Baby to see something worthwhile, far enough to give Baby a view.

If the first rude awakening was the trail surface, the second was the climb. I had spent weeks preparing us against cold when I should have been preparing us against gravity. I had put all my chips on the wrong number. The guidebooks soft-peddled this aspect to a criminally negligent extent, assuming I would just deduce that one would not get to something called a “rim” unless he did a substantial amount of climbing. They would write things like, “This hike passes through meadows at first and then involves some climbing, before leveling out ….” What it should have said is, “This will be the most intense physical activity you have ever experienced. If you have never been on an inclined treadmill for five hours while balancing a 75-pound weight on your back and fielding a nonstop stream of questions about Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, do not attempt this. There is a fifty-fifty chance your heart will explode out of your chest. Several times during the hike, you actually will wish for a fatal mountain lion attack so that you will not have to continue.” Stuff like that. Instead, we get euphemisms like, “some climbing.” Oh sure, next to “Difficulty” it said “Extreme,” but we all know they have to say that for the lawyers.

The third reality check, which really is just a corollary of the second, was distances. I’m very sorry but there is no possible way that the distances posted on this trail are accurate. I know, more or less, what a mile feels like. There’s a one-mile loop in my neighborhood that I used to walk my dog around a couple of times a week. I did it at a leisurely stroll in about twenty minutes — three miles an hour. There’s a four-mile loop around a lake in downtown Austin. If I walked with purpose, I could trace it in an hour. That I wasn’t crazy was confirmed to me when I heard another man the following day exclaim loudly, to no one in particular as he labored passed the visitor center, “I want to meet the man who came up with those distances… Maybe as the crow flies!”

In the first place, there seems to be fairly wide disagreement about just how far it is around this venerable loop. Granted there are several shortcuts, but you’d read 14.9 in one source, 12.5 in the next. My first thought when I started seeing mileage signs back to the trailhead, was that they were simply decimal errors. The sign that read .3 miles surely meant 3 miles, and whatever federal prisoner had been assigned to cut the numbers out of the sheet metal had simply slipped and punched a decimal before the number instead of dotting the “i” in “miles.” The sign that said 3 miles must have meant 30. I was completely incredulous at every marker. Distances were inconceivably longer than indicated. Every sign that should have been a trophy and a spirit-lifting beacon of progress was instead a demoralizing punch in the crotch.

My mind groped for an explanation. If they had estimated the mileage by an aerial map, they might have failed to capture the distance in the third dimension of elevation, but surely they weren’t this crude. Perhaps they had just laid a length of kite string on a large map in the general area where they thought the trail was, and so had failed to measure the innumerable switchbacks.

My last and favorite theory was that their surveyor’s wheel was turning perhaps half the time, the remainder simply skidding over the endless bed of slippery rocks.

But withal, the boys managed to maintain a happy banter, peppering me with questions about Clone armor and whether the Gungans, of hyperstatic underwater bubble fame, and the non-amphibious Naboo had ever actually gone to war. At times we walked along in silence. These were special times, when we seemed to communicate merely by being together instead of by incessantly chattering. But those were few and short-lived.

I should hasten to add that they peppered me with latter-day Star Wars questions in spite of my utter indifference to Episodes 1 through 3. Though Episodes 4 through 6 played a major role in the youth of any American my age, I was in general accord with comedian Patton Oswalt’s dark fantasy about using a time machine to return to 1990 and kill George Lucas in his sleep with a shovel. I generally keep these thoughts to myself as I don’t want to rain on the boys’ parade, but the fact remains: Meesa no likey the prequel episodes so muuuch!

And when I wasn’t fielding questions about why Anikan always addressed Obiwan, and Obiwan addressed Qui-gon, with the term “master,” I could give as good as I got when faced with prolonged silence. On one particular stretch, punch drunk from the climb, I burst into a full-throated rendition of a space education song I had learned in elementary school. It is rendered in a sort of jaunty style that might fit a musical sea epic or German tavern:

The sun is a mass of incandescent gas
A gigantic nuclear furnace!
Where hydrogen is built into helium
At a temp’rature of millions of degreeees!

Yo-ho! It’s hot! The sun is not
A place where we could liiive,
But here on earth there’d be no life
Without the light it giiives!

Over the course of the next four hours, we gained about a thousand feet, occasionally turning to see the lodge growing smaller and smaller below us in the distance. Just before we topped a ridge to head into a high canyon, we saw a metal sign nailed to a tree: “WARNING – Mountain Lion Country. This area is known to have active mountain lions that can be aggressive toward humans. Avoid bringing small children into this area.”

A. What do you mean by “small”?

B. If the problem is serious enough to post an unnerving sign like this, one might have thought that Heather, the park ranger, would have mentioned it as she sat across the table from Andrew and Cameron earlier that day and assigned us our campsites on the other side of this area, and

C. Would it be an idea to put a sign of this nature AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TRAIL?!!!

Relying on the park rangers’ apparent lack of concern, we pressed ahead into Boot Canyon.

I know in hindsight that I was carrying at least 20 unnecessary pounds, and even at the time I wished like hell there were a magical way to extract all the weight of things that would never get used. The extra pair of socks and underwear. The meals we would never get to. The 17 ounces of leftover water we would never drink. The tissues I would never blow into. Nineteen of the 20 tools of my pocket knife I would never use — but you never know when you’ll get your hand stuck between two boulders and have to saw your arm off at the elbow, am I right? When I reached the four-hour mark I realized that in my back pocket I was carrying, of all things, my checkbook. I never carry my checkbook anywhere. But thank goodness I had carried it up the side of a 2,000-foot basin just in case there was a bank branch where I could pay our mortgage or some Girl Scouts selling cookies outside a Wal-Mart.

Every half hour or so we would continue to see mileage signs that seemed asymptotic in nature — always getting nearer to the goal but never actually reaching it.

And now the light was failing, and the temperature, falling. And the canyon was narrowing. As we plodded on in single file, a gray rock-face rose nearly straight up on our left. To the right of the two-foot-wide trail, the ground sloped steeply down forty or fifty feet to a series of stagnant pools fed occasionally by a spring. A bad step and a fall down there wouldn’t have been fatal, but it wouldn’t have been fun.

I paused. “It’s getting cold, guys,” I said. “Time to get our coats on.” Andrew and I went into our packs and retrieved our heavy coats. I then unzipped Cameron’s pack to find … a scarf. With genuine horror, I then realized that his coat, presumed to be in his pack all along, was at this moment, safely in the backseat of the car. I had not seen it as I surveyed the space behind the backseat when we set out. I heard my mother: “Two boys froze to death out on the Caprock. FROZE … TO DEATH!” I took off my red flannel shirt and put it on Cameron, who then reminded me of Bugs Bunny disguised as Elmer Fudd. I would have mummified him in my coat if necessary, but this was enough for the moment.

Minute after long minute we trudged on by the light of our three headlamps. Now Andrew began to cry. Then Cameron to whimper. Exhausted, yes. Hungry, yes. But mostly they were just scared. Boot Canyon, especially in the dark, was something right off a Wizard of Oz sound stage, with bare scraggly branches black against a charcoal sky and gray craggy cliff faces borrowed from Mordor.

“Dad,” said Andrew, “we should be sounding off all the time, shouldn’t we?”

“Guys, I promise, the first place we reach where we can camp, we’ll stop. I promise.”

A few minutes after this promise, my headlamp swept to our left, and I spotted a little area just beside the trail under a dead tree that looked to be about fifteen feet square. I slowed to a stop. Looked at the boys, all snotty and teary-eyed. Looked at the crescent moon mocking us at the mouth of the canyon up ahead who knows how much farther, and looked back at the patch. “I think we should camp here, boys.”

As badly as they had wanted to stop hiking and pitch camp a minute before, now they were just as upset at the prospect of stopping. “I just want to get somewhere where it’s safe!” Andrew cried. I’m not sure what he was picturing, because whatever site awaited us after another treacherous hour on the trail would not have looked much safer than this patch of ground, though it surely would have been a little flatter, roomier and more open.

* * *

As I unpacked our tent my legs and arms trembled with exhaustion. I would have thought I’d be ravenous but instead was nauseous, like an out-of-shape recruit during the first week of boot camp. I had a peculiar, wretched taste in my mouth. Perhaps it was simply not having eaten anything all afternoon, but I suspected that it was actually that I had achieved the rare-for-me state of ketosis, burning through all my glucose and now starting in on fatty acids. (I had heard this was a symptom.)

As the boys whimpered in the dark, I worked steadily to assemble the tent, occasionally requesting this pole or that sleeve in an attempt to engage them in the improvement of their own situation. Finally the tent was up, barely clearing two different branches. The ground beneath us sloped toward the trail and featured multiple exposed rocks. Huge gray boulders surrounded us on three sides. High above us, between the canyon walls and through the limbs of dead and dormant trees, a sliver of stars hinted at the visual feast that might have been had we made it to the South Rim.

We rolled out our pads, which did mitigate the rocks, opened up our sleeping bags, and the boys crawled in fully dressed. Being way more tired than hungry, they passed on dinner — the final cruel irony of the day. The stove, the carefully selected freeze-dried food, and much of the water, had been lugged all the way up here for nothing.

Lastly, I hung my backpack by some bungee chords from a low branch of a tree as a lame nod to bear safety. I hoped the effort would count for something in the kharmic ledger because it sure didn’t in the worldly plane. Instead of being out of the reach of bear, it now simply hung at mouth level, like one of those elevated dog bowls. Whatever its shortcomings, it did keep ants, skunks, opossums, and other denizens from rummaging through it.

I shimmied down into my sleeping bag, and despite the awkward angle, holes, and protruding rocks, the muscles in my back finally started to relax.

I had never been so tired.

Then, of course, I noticed the tent’s rainfly had come undone at one corner, and while I didn’t expect rain, I did figure it would help hold in our body heat. “Two boys froze to death out on the Caprock. Froze! To death! … Froze to death! (add echo effect) … Froze to death! … Caprock! … Caprock!”

I then realized I also had left the mace in my backpack. I saw the sign in my mind’s eye: “WARNING: This is an active mountain lion area. Do not bring small children into this area. Mountain lion area. No children. Caprock.” I pried my aching body off the ground one last time, fixed the rainfly, dug the mace out of my pack and put it in my coat pocket for the night, peed on a boulder, and returned to the tent and sleeping bag, with all their exhausting series of zippers.

Finally still, my mind stewed in our predicament, and this is when darkness truly set in. There was no getting around it — this had been a mistake. A huge mistake. A colossal mistake. I was embarrassed to my core that I had gotten us into this situation, and burned with guilt over the boys’ tears on what should have been a rigorous but happy tromp. It’s hard to sufficiently convey at this remove, but at that moment, I hated Big Bend. I didn’t want a souvenir. Not a hat, not a T shirt.

I blamed the place. Places like this, especially in Texas, are often called “God’s country.” I thought that of all the places that used the “God’s country” convention, none had more of a realistic claim on it than Big Bend, because only God could really live here for any length of time. God and the lizards. Big Bend was a gorgeous bitch, a femme fatale that drew you in from a distance with her beauty and then broke your heart up close in a thousand different ways: jagged rocks, lack of water, cactus needles, snakes, stinging insects.

And in the dark of this particular night, the despair went deeper: I genuinely wanted nothing to do with backcountry ever again. I wondered what I could get for my 90-liter backpack on Craigslist and even formulated the copy there in my half-waking state: “Good-as-new backpack–” no, no — “90-liter backpack, used once….”

As soon as we arrived home, I was going to just delete my Facebook posting about going to Big Bend so that friends and family wouldn’t ask how it went, and I would be forced to either lie about it or fess up to presiding over this unmitigated disaster. I wanted nothing less than to expunge this one from the record and pretend it never happened. But the boys, they would always remember.

There’s no feeling like the feeling that you’ve failed your children. When we were in a dead zone for cell service the previous day Kirstin had left me a voicemail: “It’s a good thing I trust you so much,” she said in the message. No, I thought. It’s not a good thing. She shouldn’t have, and she probably never will again.

After I had stewed in my own self-loathing for an hour, listening to the boys breathing, ears perked for any sign of critter outside the tent, my mother’s voice came to me again: “Two boys froze to death out on the Caprock.” I woke them both up, one after the other, and asked them if they were warm. I then stuck my hand down into their sleeping bags like a mechanic using a dipstick to check oil. They were roasting. Whatever gerryrigged system I had devised and hauled up here was working. I paused my self-flagelating to throw myself a morsel of credit. This, at least, had gone to plan.

When I finally believed that the boys were not going to freeze to death, Caprock style, my body, which, mind you, had been awake since 3:20 that morning, finally succumbed to my rocky bed, my bedrock, if you will. And we all slept. Until about 2:30, when I popped awake for no particular reason and turned everything over in my mind again and again for another two hours before dozing once more.

I awoke for the last time a few minutes before six and decided to fix breakfast for the boys so we could be hiking as soon as light allowed and before anyone came down the trail and noted our illegal campsite. The fact that our site was against the rules bothered Andrew especially, I could tell, and I took this as a healthy sign that he was becoming a conscientious citizen.

Kneeling on the rocks in the dark, I measured out the water into our aluminum pitcher for breakfast No. 1 — scrambled eggs and bacon for Cameron. I lit the little red backcountry stove and perched the pitcher precariously on its three-pronged burner. When at long last the water boiled, I poured it into the bag, sealed it, and set it on a rock to cook. The final step, ten minutes later, was to pour off the excess water before “serving.” As I drained the steaming bacon- and egg-laced water onto the rocks near our makeshift site, I said a little prayer for the poor bastards who would be passing this way later today; any black bear worth his salt would be all over this newly christened Bacon Rock.

Andrew and I had chosen the stroganof, normally my favorite dish. Alas, this morning reconstituted beef stroganof didn’t agree with me, and a few chewy bites was enough. I chased the taste out of my mouth with half a bottle of 5-Hour Energy. Given how things had gone the previous day, you might think I would have gone for the whole five hours, but I only brought it along for the caffeine. This was enough to ward off a withdrawal headache but not enough to cause me to break out in a niacin rash (a story for another time).

We broke down the tent and tediously rolled, folded, and stuffed every single article back in its appointed place. As a final act of atonement for everything the boys had gone through the previous day, I offered to carry not only Andrew’s sleeping bag and pad down the mountain, but Cameron’s as well; he did not refuse the offer.

My pack was now an even more ridiculous contraption and reminded all of us of the Grinch’s sled fully loaded. At this point and throughout the rest of the morning we worked out a routine wherein I would hoist the pack up to my elbows, then both boys would get under it and lift as hard as they could so that I could, through a series of jostling and bouncing motions, bring the straps up to my shoulders. Of course, the reason hikers put their bedrolls and such up high, above the pack is to keep the center of gravity as much as possible over the hips, which should be bearing most of the weight. As I did not have any of the right gear to achieve this, all of our bedding dangled off the back and below the pack, placing my center of gravity about seven-and-a-half feet behind me, or somewhere between Andrew and Cameron on the trail.

This made it all the more important that the shoulder straps be clipped together in the middle of the chest to distribute the weight. So I grabbed the strap connecting the shoulder straps and gave one last tug to tighten it down. It was the last tug because this strapped now snapped off. There was no getting back on.

And there was no use complaining about it. I just hooked my thumbs inside the straps to occasionally relieve the pressure, and we started back through Boot Canyon the direction we had come the night before. With everything loaded and on the move, and with the scenery growing brighter with each passing minute, our spirits lifted and we joked and sang as we started back on the trail. There no doubt was a question about whether Watto, the Toydarian junk dealer on Tatooine, really had a helium bladder or just used his wings for levitation.

Five minutes down the trail, the boys decided they needed to go to the bathroom — number two. Off came the pack. Out came the tissue paper and the ziplock bag to pack out the soiled remains. When they had both defiled the great outdoors behind a pair of massive boulders, Andrew said, “Dad! Check out that bird!”


“Right in front of you!”

Sure enough, right in front of us, a blue Mexican jay had lighted on a bare branch as if waiting for his photo to be taken. I retrieved my camera and fired off about twenty pictures of him and his buddies. Our mood lifted again. I hadn’t completely made peace with this trip or myself yet, but in the brightening day it was just possible that I no longer hated Big Bend National Park.

We repeated the Lifting of Daddy’s Pack and headed out toward the namesake of Boot Canyon, Boot Rock, a monolith resembling an upside-down boot that stood at the mouth of the canyon. When we reached a scenic overlook about an hour later, we unloaded for a rest, some water, jerky, and a nice view of Boot Rock, the desert floor beyond the basin, and the Sierra del Carmen mountains of Mexico beyond that. Here, determined to use the tripod I had hauled up here at least once during the hike, I mounted the camera on it and used the timer to get a few pictures of all of us with the vista behind us.

We marched on, and soon, in a testament to the resilience of kids and a gesture that made me so happy I wanted to cry, Andrew said out of the blue, “Thanks for bringing us, Dad.” After all this, I thought, he thanks me.

It was about 10 a.m. before we started seeing signs of humanity again, oncoming groups of twos and fours and fives on their way out to the South Rim. Perhaps a little surprisingly, the sight of other people lifted our spirits yet again.

With almost every passing, a little transaction takes place that can last from eight seconds to ten minutes depending on the mutual interest shown by the passing parties. There were other father-son sets, usually pairings. There were fragments of a Scout den. There was a foursome from Boston and Houston that was taking four days to hike around the basin with the help of a guide. (This made me feel better about our failing to have done it in 24 hours and without a guide, but all the more quixotic for having tried.) There was the fiftysomething lesbian couple. And numerous couples in their 20s and 30s with a bounce in their step, fueled by legs both young and fresh.

The first party that asked us how it was going got the entire narrative. But as fatigue began to reclaim my legs and back, the summary got more and more “executive.” The second that asked got a treatment about half that of the first. The next, just a few bullet points: “Pretty good… Tough night… Trapped in Boot Canyon by darkness, exhaustion, improvised camp. Some great views. No bears or lions. Good luck!” The following one, just the station-break headline: “Austin family trapped in Boot Canyon. Movie at eleven.”

As we passed other hikers, I began to note that mine was the largest pack in the Chisos Basin that day by about 50 percent. I could tell by their faces and how they stepped off the trail to make room for me, and how they said, “Woah!” or simply laughed as they passed me and saw the load.

About three hours down the trail, I started to entertain the thought that I might have blown out the double hernia surgery I had had the previous year. Turns out I hadn’t, but it was plausible. Also, there might have been a question about how familiar I was with the Lego version of Darth Maul’s Sith Infiltrator vehicle.

If yesterday represented going farther and farther out on a limb, today, we were quickly returning to the safety of the trunk. With about two hours left, we began to catch glimpses of the visitor center, far, far below us in the basin. I cautioned the boys that the car was still, several hours away, even though we could almost see it at this high angle.

But step by step, we chipped away at our task, and came closer to the trunk, the car, the much-discussed cheeseburger. As the sun climbed above the rim and bathed the basin in its full light, the boys spotted an eight-point white-tail buck in the woods paralleling us at about forty feet. Around the next bend, a group of three white-tails, with no apparent fear of humans, walked directly toward us, paused for a photo about 15 feet away, and crossed the trail. Even though white-tails were ultra common in Austin, the sight of our first mammal of the trip put a needed spring in our step.

Four hours and forty minutes into that morning’s hike, we were now within a thousand yards of the parking lot. A lifetime of experience and something deep inside told me that one of us was about to get hurt. It’s just the way things go. It’s as if there’s price that has to be paid, a mandatory sacrifice to a cruel god of family outtings, and if you’re lucky, you pay it at the end instead of the middle. Within sixty seconds of having this thought, I looked up the trail in front of me and saw Andrew down. He had turned his ankle. Luckily he was up and moving soon and by the time we reached the parking lot, he was dancing and jogging.

Throwing caution to the wind, we jumped a low wall and traced a well-worn path into the visitor complex rather than stay on the trail to the bitter end. Seeing my pack, with its daisy chain of sleeping bags dangling down to my calves, and seeing the company I was keeping, no one held the shortcut against us. We were back to civilization.

While I stood by the open car, I changed my shirt, reapplied deodorant, and changed out of the wool socks that had just started a few blisters. In the restaurant above the parking lot, I finished a chicken fried steak platter in about six minutes, then waited as the boys finish their hamburgers. I stared out at the basin in a slack-jawed daze, my legs, hips and shoulders buzzing with exhaustion.

Lessons learned, I thought: Next time, twice the daylight, half the stuff. Take water, nuts, raisins, and energy bars. No expensive freeze-dried food means no stove, no water pitcher, no cups, no clean up; camera and tripod, yes, but no tent, ultra-light zero-rated sleeping bag, no pad. Nothing else. Oh, and no checkbook.

We decided we’d submit our Junior Ranger paperwork by mail instead of in person, and headed north, out of the park. Roughly 10 miles north of the park boundary sits an immigration checkpoint. As the only northbound road into the checkpoint comes directly out of the national park, it is surely one of the least needed facilities in the INS, but I suppose they have to have one. Having grown up in South Texas, way, way downstream from here, border checkpoints were a common sight, and I knew the drill. I slowed to a stop, rolled down my window, and chirped “ ‘afternoon.”

“U.S. citizen?” the officer asked.

“Yes, sir.”

He was about to wave me on, when his eyes wandered to the backseat and his face took on a quizzical look. “Do you have a boy and … a girl back there?”

That’s a strange question, I thought. “Two boys,” I said. I then turned around to see Andrew and Cameron both completely shrouded in blankets, a technique they used to keep the glare off the tiny video screens they were holding in their laps that, yes, were playing Episode 2: Attack of the Clones.

“Okay,” he laughed, “thanks.” He motioned me on. As I accelerated away, I wondered if two human-shaped figures in the back seat with blankets all the way over them like dead Aunt Edna in Vacation were not enough to warrant a gentle search of a vehicle, what would be?

On the long drive home, I reassessed the trip in the more forgiving light of day. Had we created some memories? Indeed. Had I expanded their horizons? Check. Had we been hungry and without food? Thirsty and without water? Cold and without warmth? No, no, and no. Just more tired than normal, and for two of us, a little afraid of the dark. I adjusted my grade from an F to a C+. By the time we were home, it was a B-.

Before the trip, we had remained mum about our upcoming adventure around little Ian, who we knew would not be joining us. We didn’t want to rub it in that he, who was probably the most enthusiastic if not the most intrepid camper of my sons, would not be making the trip. We had bought him a little stuffed bear in the gift shop of the lodge, and when we gave him his prize, he said in his most adorable and halting way, “Did … you … all … have fun … in Daddyland?”

And wasn’t that just it? Yes, that was Big Bend National Park, and yes it was the Chisos Basin, but it was, at day’s end, Daddyland. Daddyland is a place where love and the desire to teach and experience do constant battle with common sense and, occasionally, safety. A place where bonding comes through hardship. Daddyland is a beautiful but wild place. Daddyland is fiercer than Mommyland, and more adventuresome than Grandmaville or Neighborworld. Daddyland is its own psycho-spiritual landscape — its own dimension that children who have daddies drop into and out of on the quixotic whim that is both our blessing and our curse.

I thought about the question for a moment, then answered with a truth that stopped short of comprehensiveness. “Yes, buddy, we did have fun in Daddyland.” Just ask Padme, Count Dooku, or anyone in the Galactic Republic’s trade delegation.


Exploded Diagram of Boys' Layered Clothing

Two Lines

(From my memoir-in-progress on fatherhood. Some material in this chapter also appears in The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder.)

Two lines.

She thought she saw two lines, but wasn’t sure. So she brought the plastic stick, still glistening with urine, over to the bed. The second line was faint, but I definitely saw something.

“Put it this way,” I said. “How mad would you be if you didn’t want to be pregnant and you saw that line, even if it was faint?”

She agreed.

The next day, she repeated the whole process, and the second line was darker. Our second anniversary present to each other, was that we would have a baby.

We watched and listened as the baby grew inside of her. The nurse would smear KY jelly all over a microphone-like instrument and rub it around between Kirstin’s navel and pubic bone. The nurse would stare at the wall, as if that helped her to listen, and then, there it would be. Woosh-woosh, woosh-woosh, woosh-woosh. The heartbeat. She’d freeze in that spot, and Kirstin and I would exchange grins of disbelief.

When it was time for the sonogram, she’d flip on the video monitor, pop in the videotape that we’d bring with us each time, and begin swirling the sensor around on her stomach. The grainy black and white kaleidoscope would swirl and finally come to rest on something that looked like a lima bean. And right in the middle of the bean was a throbbing grain of sand, looking like a pulsar in some far-away galaxy. His, or her, beating heart.

That was him … or her. We didn’t know the sex and chose not to find out. But we hated to just call it “It” over and over. And so we came up with working titles. It started as “Bryo,” then became “Cletus the Fetus,” before settling into “Chou-chou,” (shoo-shoo) which Kirstin, the erstwhile French major, said meant “little cabbage.”

Had we been able to see images before seven weeks — and someday soon surely people will — we might have seen how the baby, or, as nurses universally called him, simply “Baby,” looks in the very beginning. (Nurses say, “Baby’s in this position,” and “Baby’s active today!” For me, it’s “the baby.” “Baby” was the protagonist in Dirty Dancing. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner of a uterus!”)

Pregnant couples learn to mark time in weeks. Forty weeks was the goal, though Baby is considered fully cooked anywhere from two weeks early to two weeks late.

From periodic sonograms, we could see someone growing inside Kirstin, something on its face so miraculous and bizarre that nobody would believe it if it didn’t happen 490,000 times a day all over the world.

The first round showed a bean. The second showed a clear split between the body and the relatively enormous head, as big as the body. After this, we followed along week by week in Kirstin’s old biology textbook. Now the arm buds and leg buds were sprouting out of the torso. The dark spots were eyes. For the first two months, had we been able to monitor it every day, we would have seen something different. Some new, enormously vital and complex body system was taking shape on a daily basis. On Tuesday the baby grew kidneys; Wednesday the lungs were forming; Thursday the digestive tract was differentiating and pulling inside of the rib cage. This week, all of the bones of the hand are formed, in the very same configuration they will remain for the next eighty years.

Knowing all this, we scrutinized Kirstin’s diet and activities. No caffeine. No NutriSweet. No ibuprofen. No antibiotics. No pumping gasoline. Swimming was okay, but not jogging. No mowing. And her longtime goal of skydiving was right out. Nothing was allowed that we even suspected might throw off this amazing unfoldment of life and its layered and interlocking systems.

Throughout its development, there are striking similarities between a human fetus and the fetuses of animals down the evolutionary ladder. For instance, our fetus resembles the fetus of a shark, complete with gills (Shark Week!), then resembles the fetus of a pig, and later resembles the fetus of a monkey and finally an ape, covered in hair called lanugo. This observation by others spawned a theory of gestation known as ontology recapitulating phylogeny.

In the early months, with a clear image, it is hard not to notice the tail. I briefly wondered if I had sired a sea monkey and how this would play out when it came time to start dating. But Chou-Chou soon grew into his or her tail, and my worries were for naught.

In the meantime we attended classes, which struck me as so quaintly human. Dogs and cats did not seem to need hand-outs and instructions on how to have their young. Yet we felt we did. In fact, we went through not one course but two: the Bradley Method, which was for hardcore granola couples who wished to keep things as natural as possible, and the Lamaze classes sponsored and required by the hospital. It was the last day of class and Kirstin had left early to make it to her baby shower on time. I vowed to stay behind and pick up as many more details of child birthing and rearing as I could. “Where’s the justice,” I thought. “She’s at a party unwrapping presents, and I’m here holding a thermometer up a doll’s ass.” In any event, I realized full well, with all the talk of centimeters this and lactation that, that nature had dealt me the easy hand in this partnership.

There were decisions to make. First was the name. This one is fun but also a little nerve-wracking. To think that two people can sit around and just decide what somebody is going to be called for the rest of their lives, like they would decide whether to go for Mexican or seafood on a given night, is bizarre, and, if you let yourself think about it for too long, can be petrifying.

Kirstin and I had decided that we were old fashioned and didn’t want to know the gender of the baby before it was born, as this is one of the true surprises left in life. But that means that you’ve got to pick two names.

I felt the weight of this decision keenly. Kirstin and I suspect a pendulum at work here — one generation assigns a “creative,” that is to say unusual, name to their kids, who suffer the daily grind of a world not set up for creative names: spelling it every time you leave a phone message or transact any business whatsoever, correcting people who mispronounce it or, as I tend to do, simply answering to anything. As Kirstin and I (Avrel) had this in common, we aimed to give the kids names that were 1) self-explanatory 2) without being overly common. Of course, this is a fool’s errand because you’re always fighting the last war when it comes to distinctiveness vs. commonness. We though we were going just a little ways off the beaten path with each one until we showed up for the first day of preschool, and heard “Andrew, come here!” from six different directions, addressing six of Andrew’s classmates. How all parents decide to “zag” at precisely the same moment, rendering the zag a zig and thereby nullifying it, is uncanny.

The next decision, I can honestly say, never occurred to me before she was pregnant: Whether or not to circumcise if it be a boy. Most things of consequence in our marriage and in our family life Kirstin and I consult on. But occasionally there will be something that we just leave completely up to the other. One example was whether or not to try for a third child, which, recognizing that her level of sacrifice both physically and mentally — was higher than mine, I left completely up to her. In her wisdom, Kirstin left this one entirely up to me.

Like virtually all American boys born in the mid-century, I had been circumcised. But there were a lot of things done back in the day that weren’t anymore. Immunization schedules. Birthing methods. Just because something was done for or to me was not a compelling reason. I read everything I could easily find on the subject. There were pros and cons on both sides. The Cut It side offered horror stories of chronic infections in little boys that led to teenage circumcisions.

The Leave It side pointed to the fact that circumcision shortened one’s adult manhood by an average of one inch. Other studies have put the average difference at 8 millimeters, or a quarter inch, but the point remains, as it were. An inch, or even a quarter inch, might not seem like a lot in most areas of life; I don’t think I need to go into detail on why that might not be so in this particular case. The closest equivalent for a girl would be deciding before she was born that she should have a breast reduction as soon as she hit puberty regardless of her bra size. I wasn’t comfortable making a permanent remodel to someone else’s body; it just never seemed like my decision to make.

The American Medical Association was no help: Do whatever you want. Doesn’t hurt to do it; probably won’t hurt not to.

Where I finally came down on the question is that I found it unlikely that, while there might have been excellent reasons for it in ages past, and even today in other parts of the world, when and where human life was far less antiseptic than it is today, to say that all boys should be circumcised is to say that half of the human race is born in immediate need of surgery. This just seemed unlikely to me. So I threw their lot in with nature.

When the fortieth week arrived, a kind of hush fell over our house. A watched cervix never dilates — that is the saying, right? — and we were watching it pretty closely. About this time in a pregnancy, advice about how to get the baby out begins to gush from all quarters. Chief among this advice, at least in Texas, is that Mexican food is the key. And so we ate Mexican, she with extra jalapeños, every night. Nothing.

Walking also is said to bring on labor, and so, every night, I would prod Kirstin out of the house and take her — waddling now in the universal side-to-side motion that comes from the elastin in the pelvis — around our one-mile loop.

When her due date arrived, I stayed close to my phone at work, checking every time I returned to my desk for the stutter-tone that meant I had voicemail. (This was before I had a cell phone, which today seems like saying “This was before I started wearing pants,” but it’s true, kids. There was a time when not everybody carried a phone/computer/TV with them everywhere they went.)

No stutter-tone. No call. That afternoon she copied me on an e-mail she had sent to friends and family: “Today has been a very emotional day for me. Please forgive me if I don’t answer the phone tonight.”

It was like we had been stood up. With her miserable and me miserable by proxy, and the impatient type anyway, we looked for the silver lining. At least he or she wouldn’t be a premie.

One day past due. Two days. Four days. Six days. Knowing from our many classes that most women go into labor in the middle of the night, we greeted each sunrise with disappointment. Another eternal day of fending off questions by well-meaning co-workers and another volley of phone calls from anxious family members. How many times could we say “no news”?

We had tried Mexican food. We had tried dancing. We had walked her until her swollen feet were bursting out of the only pair of shoes that still fit.

I kissed her goodnight and retired down the hall to the study, where I had pitched camp about three weeks earlier, to give her the maximum chance to sleep without being awakened by my tossing, turning, snoring, sneezing. Maybe sex would work; maybe it wouldn’t. We had played our last card. Now, truly, all we could do was wait.

About two hours later, at half past midnight, I was awakened by the creak of the study door. Her ample silhouette eased through the doorway and slipped down beside me in spoons on the futon. She whispered in the dark, as if there were already a baby in the house she was trying not to wake, “I think I may have had a contraction.”

The House on the Rock

It was in the summer of 2010 when we decided it was time to again go to Wisconsin to see Kirstin’s aunts and uncles. It would be four days in the car, and three days in the Dairy State. One day would be spent at the family reunion on Uncle Steve’s farm. Another day would be spent in La Crosse, where Kirstin’s dad, Grandpa John, would show them where he used to swim and eat ice cream and go to school when he was their age. That left a third day to site-see in southern Wisconsin. As we spoke with family and hotel clerks, several possibilities presented themselves: there was Little Norway, the Madison Zoo, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house Taliesen, and then there was something that kept being mentioned by relatives and front-desk clerks called The House on the Rock.

A quick visit to the website showed us that it was the home of the late Alex Jordan, who had amassed a fantastic collection of … collections, more than 200 acres of gardens and attractions that would inspire us and leave us in awe. A call confirmed that they were indeed open on the Fourth of July, and we were off.

We started off a merry party of six, the five us plus Kirstin’s dad. The price was a little steep —a hundred dollars for all of us — but hey, we were on vacation, and it promised to be an afternoon we’d not soon forget. In that, we were as right as we’d ever be about anything.

At the main entrance, festooned with dragon sculptures, we turned off the road and wound our way through a half-mile of woods punctuated with huge urns crawling with sculpted lizards and dragons. Parked, we made our way across the ample lot to the visitor center where they ran my credit card and we were pointed to the start of the tour, a museum about The House on the Rock. Yeah, yeah, whatever, I thought. I didn’t pay to see pictures of stuff. I paid to see stuff! Bring on the stuff!

Soon enough we were directed to Tour 1 of 3, which was Mr. Jordan’s house itself.

We first passed through a room where numerous instruments — player pianos and violins and cellos affixed with little pneumatic devices — were playing Ravel’s Bolero by themselves. A little creepy, but the boys always dug the haunted house thing. Turns out self-playing instruments would be a MAJOR theme throughout our afternoon. I wondered how many years the ghostly ensemble had been continuously playing Bolero, and how close the man who was taking tickets right outside that room had come to taking his own life.

We exited that room, and for five minutes climbed a covered boardwalk rising higher and higher as the hill sloped away underfoot. At last we reached a low door that seemed to open into the rock face. Once through the door, the Wisconsin breeze gave way to a dank, vague funkiness, trapped by a low ceiling and, everywhere you looked, red shag carpeting, on the floor, yes, but also on every wall. And with it, all of the most dated elements of Sixties and Seventies mod decor. It reminded one of a cross between a steak house and a Jungle Room den. Literally a man cave. The most impressive engineering achievement was the so-called Infinity Room, a sliver of a room that stuck out, seemingly unsupported, over the forest, walled by 3,000 small windows.

Throughout most of Mr. Jordan’s residence, I carried Ian in my arms, setting him down occasionally to rest my middle-aged back. We wound our way around and around the uneven floors, low ceilings, red-carpeted walls with their dated amber light fixtures until we reached the top deck, where a bare plywood roof gave a nice vista of the surrounding hilltops and forest.

Hmm, we thought. Interesting enough, but not really worth $100 and a forty-minute drive out of our way. And where’s that carousel we saw on the website? There must be more somewhere.

We made our way back down the catwalk and after a few wrong turns and queries found ourselves heading into a large hangar-like building for Tour 2. Inside, the uneven brick floor theme was carried forward, and we started down a walkway that reminded one of a cross between a theme park and a haunted house. On either side of us were faux store fronts each holding enormous collections of random items: now an antique fire truck and a life-size porcelain Dalmatian, now an Old West saloon with a hitching post and trough out front; and scattered randomly, actual trees that had been “preserved” by encasing their trunks in concrete; their dead leaves, coated in a generous layer of dust, still clung to dusty stems from branches that were not encased. As a tree enthusiast, this mainly struck me as creepy and not necessarily any better than just cutting them down.

At the end of the walkway was an enormous calliope — 20 feet high and 30 feet long, that, for a token, played a five-minute song using mechanical devices of all kinds, mallets playing on differently sized glass bottles and carboys, cymbals and tambourines and whistles.

Okay, we thought, now we’re getting somewhere. That’s really something.

By now, coming up on an hour or so of walking and climbing, the kids were starting to show early signs of fatigue – increasing frequency of drink requests, questions about how much longer, if we were going back to the hotel soon, of course, hanging on rails and, if our party paused for more than a two-count, sitting down on any surface that wasn’t occupied by a mannequin with a self-playing violin. Many times have I heard the story of my own family’s trip, taken when I was six, to Washington, D.C., and the most oft-repeated episode, when the State Department docent invited guests to look behind them at the intricately woven carpet featuring the American bald eagle. Of course the only thing spread-eagle on the floor was me, sprawled on the carpet in utter exhaustion from walking through, over, and around national treasures that were of interest mostly to adults, teenagers at best.

No matter, with a manufactured spring in my step, I led the troops onward and upward into the next exhibit hall, determined to squeeze every penny’s worth from this strange compound in the middle of the Wisconsin wilderness.

Up a ramp and through another doorway, we entered an enormous room with a sixty-foot ceiling that held in its center a colossal, three-story sculpture of an octopus locked in battle with a terrible whale, which, not to be confined to zoological truth, had the size and shape of a blue whale but the teeth of a sperm whale, toothy mouth agape revealing a crushed canoe inside. The walkway rose slowly around the perimeter of the room so the sculpture could be admired from all sides and at various heights, and along the wall was case after case after case of model ships, enormous intricately rigged models of whaling ships and battleships and submarines. Now we’re really getting somewhere! As a boy their age, I could have happily explored this room for three months.

Of the boys, Ian, the youngest, proved to me most game at this point, probably because he was being carried half the time. The battle of leviathans provided a slight uptick in Andrew’s interest and energy. Cameron, whom I thought would get the biggest charge out of it, refused to look at what he stubbornly referred to as “the dolphin,” and clung to his mother, looking only at the display cases all the way up the three floors of catwalk.

Spending the next 15 minutes climbing toward the hangar’s ceiling, we then entered a neighboring room of equal dimensions in which we promenaded past life-sized dollhouses, Jordan’s custom-built cars, and a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine. By now it was getting on toward suppertime, and Kirstin and I knew instinctively that a behavioral time bomb was ticking. Plus we had been warned numerous times by staff that Tour 3 could only be entered until 5 o’clock. Yes, it was time to pick up the pace. We soldiered wearily past the temptations of a pizzeria and through a tunnel leading to Tour 3.

Words fail utterly to capture the scale of what we saw next, but I’ll try. As soon as we entered Tour 3, we were greeted by the long-promised carousel. But it was not just any carousel. It was an ENORMOUS carousel, so big you couldn’t see the far side of it. A nearby plaque appraised its worth at more than $4 million. It held probably 100 circus chimera, the bodies of horses and the heads of eagles, elephants, tigers, and so on.

The brochure called Alex Jordan a visionary. It was about this time that I decided I would call him the craziest son of a bitch that ever drew breath. The enormous room that held the carousel held dozens, maybe hundreds, of other carousel animals fastened to the ceiling. We exited the room through the huge mouth of a devilish ape and soon emerged into an even more cavernous room.

More trees encased in concrete, more red shag carpet, steel catwalks routing people up and down, under and over and around the most bizarre assortment. An enormous bronze cannon. Strings of copper kettledrums hanging from the ceiling. Printing presses. Bellow organs. Giant steam engines. A three-story-tall clock off a tower. The pop culture reference point for how we were feeling by now had become clear: we were moving through a real-life Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, minus the chocolate, and with Willie Wonka a crazy Wisconsin mogul who had died in 1989 and was now ghoulishly laughing at us from beyond the grave.

At this point, I remember beginning to laugh uncontrollably as I stared at Kirstin and her dad for their reactions. “What is this place?!” we guffawed. “What’s happening?!”

When that burst of incredulity had worn off, we had decided we were done. It was a fascinating regional attraction, we had gotten our money’s worth, and we were ready for our next destination. The boys were hungry and beyond exhausted and we were close behind them. Fortunately the walkway led us right into a café.

Unfortunately, the café was closing down and even though they were still routing people into it, they wouldn’t sell us anything, and routed us right back out into Tour 3. I now was carrying The Destroyer of Worlds on my shoulders as we entered the dollhouse wing. There, like rats through a maze, we were routed past dozens, maybe a hundred, dollhouses. It might well have been the most extensive and valuable collection of dollhouses and dolls in the world, and we didn’t give a flying crap. By this time I was outright fast-walking, careful not to hit the head of the Destroyer of Worlds on a beam or a doorway. At one point, we saw a bottleneck shaping up ahead of us due to a lady in a wheelchair, and we actually broke into a run to get around her.

Through the dollhouses, we were sure we must be near the exit, when we stepped through a doorway and were greeted by a sign reading “CIRCUS LAND.” Within, to a continuous soundtrack crazy circus music, we filed past model tent after model tent filled with hundreds to thousands of dolls watching the freeze-frame action. Through more doors we came upon two more carousels, each two or three stories — who’s counting anymore? — and featuring half-size characters. Up another ramp and through another doorway Mr. Jordan took Circus Land into a huge finish, a two-story gilded wagon loaded with mannequins dressed in band uniforms, in the corner, a three-tiered pyramid of life-size elephants with 1970 J.C. Penney surplus mannequins riding on their heads and trunks. And in another corner, a 100-piece J.C. Penney surplus mannequin orchestra holding self-playing instruments.

For a moment I flashed on the scene from Gandhi, when the Martin Sheen character shouts into the telephone to transmit his news story on passive resistance at the salt mine. “And still they came STOP! Wave after wave STOP! No amount of violence or force used by the empire dissuading them from their mission STOP!”

We trudged up another ramp getting closer and closer to the ceiling toward an unassuming door with a standard Exit sign over it. I pushed the bar, it opened, and there it was, daylight, the out of doors. And just like that, after three hours, it was over.

Except for the gift shop.

The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder – Chapter 1

The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder: A Search for the Boundaries of the Body, Mind, and Soul

Chapter 1 – Fishing

“Yeah,” we assure each other. “We’re covering some water.”

It’s slow, but we can mark our progress by the movement of the weedy bottom past the hull. The tiny trolling motor whirs away on its virgin voyage, clamped onto the back of my ten-foot homemade boat. As Jason and I leave the dock and putter quietly west across the Laguna Madre — the wide, shallow bay that separates South Padre Island from the Texas mainland — the handle/throttle of the trolling motor vibrates in my grip, and I check the clamp to make sure it isn’t jiggling loose.

It is eleven on a brilliant autumn morning, the second Saturday of October 1998, and the sky has grown a deep shade of blue as the sun has begun its migration south for the winter.

We’re headed for the gulls, the easiest sign for fishermen to follow. Where there are gulls, there are shrimp and baitfish: piggy perch, finger mullet, croakers. And where there are baitfish, usually, there are gamefish: reds (red drum), specks (speckled sea trout), and flounder. Like everybody else, we’re after these three. And so we head for the gulls, snow-white with gray legs and heads dipped in black like the onion dome tops of Dairy Queen ice cream cones. Large brown pelicans patrol the coastline of the bay in long, motionless passes. Occasionally, they fold their wings and plunge into the water in what to me seems a magnificent and daring maneuver, then surface expressionless with a billful of baitfish. The blank stare reminds me that daring dive-bombing in three feet of water is no more extraordinary or romantic to them than driving through Whataburger is to me.

When we reach the gulls, I throw out the iron anchor, which looks like a tiny black sombrero with a chain out its top, and tie it off on a cleat near the stern. It proves more a weight than an anchor, as it only slows our drift. Knowing how fickle gamefish are, and how soon and utterly completely they can move on to other feeding grounds, we quickly begin chunking our red rubber worms and reeling them in. I’ve never gotten used to the speed at which you should reel in artificial lures like this. It’s so counterintuitive: If you want the fish to bite it, shouldn’t you slow it down and give it a better chance, not try to outrun it? No. Reds, specks, and even the flat, asymmetrical flounder, one of the elite freaks of nature, can swim at astounding speeds. And so you reel quickly, much quicker than you think you should, just slow enough to prevent your wrists from seizing up from fatigue.

We have fished fewer than ten minutes when Jason’s lure is hit. His black bay rod bends into that sweet, familiar parabola, and the tip begins jerking franticly. “All right!” he exclaims. “Dude, we got fish out here,” he laughs. Setting my pole down, I grab the green net, and he leads the silvery trout into it before I lift the fish quickly into the boat. It is the first fish caught in the new boat — a christening of sorts. I produce the disposable cardboard fun cam out of my vest pocket and document the occasion with a few quick clicks before folding the speck into our small ice chest, the only one that will fit on the boat. Jason has fine brown hair and a thin face with eyes that angle down slightly at the edges. His large Adam’s apple produces a low, soft voice, except when he laughs. He moves slowly and methodically, but his speech comes in sudden surges and sentences come with the same cadence of a fish suddenly taking the drag and running off sixty feet of line. He holds the fish underhand with the second knuckle of each finger, allowing his fingertips to extend out past the fish toward the camera and curve slightly downward.

Me — I’m six-two, 175, and at 31 years old, am already going white at the temples, which is accented by the fact that the rest of my hair seems to be getting darker with age. As a kid, it alternated between brown and dirty blond depending on the season. But I guess a desk job and middle age have permanently darkened it. I was bone skinny from childhood until four years ago, when the metabolic and the caloric lines suddenly crossed. Then, my once-angular face began to take on the rounded corners of middle-age comfort, and the waist went from a 30 to a 34. My hair is board straight, and I keep it shorter now that we’re out of the eighties.

The speck flops against the inside of the chest giving the typically eerie Telltale Heart thudding of a life ebbing away, not under the floorboards of a haunted house, but in the same general area.

Energized at the prospect of “wild schooling action,” as we often fantasized would be the case, we both hurry our lures back into the bay at the same approximate spot.

A dejected “Oh, man,” from Jason is the first sign I have that two “fishpigs” are in hot pursuit. Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers have an uncanny ability to sniff out irregularities in the bay and home in on them in seconds. And when, through their high-powered binoculars, they see a ten-foot, plywood boat with a trolling motor clamped on the back, they head toward us as instinctively as the speckled trout had headed for Jason’s plastic lure five minutes earlier.

The two rangers pulled up beside us in their flat-bottom boat, perfectly suited for patrolling the shallow bay. One of them kneels on the indoor/outdoor carpeting of their boat’s deck and holds the hull of mine at arm’s length to prevent them from hitting as they bob. The other begins his law-enforcement patter.

“Mornin’, fellas.”

“Morning!” I chirp, inflecting too much cheerfulness.

“This thing registered?” he asks.

“Well, no. I was told I didn’t have to register it because it’s a sailboat under fourteen feet.”

He smiles and exchanges glances with his partner. “Who told you that?”

“The salesman at the sailboat shop where I bought supplies.”

“Well, that’s true for a sailboat, but see, you’ve got a motor on it.”

“This thing?” I ask incredulously. It has never occurred to me that I am piloting a “motor boat,” as our trolling motor will not go more than about five miles per hour in ideal conditions.

“Yes, sir. Any boat with a motor attached has to be registered.”

“But,” I parse his every phrase for a technicality, “… but this isn’t permanently attached. I put it on and take it off constantly. It’s just barely clamped on here!”

“If it’s got a motor, it’s gotta be registered.” By this time he is already writing on his little yellow pad. “Can I get your name please?”

“Avrel. A-V, as in Victor, R-E-L, Seale, S-E-A-L-E.” Our conversation proceeds to other topics like address and phone number, area code first. Still I grope for any shred of mercy. “This is my first time out in this boat, and I honestly didn’t know it had to be registered! Is there any possible way you can give me a warning?”

He chuckles and exchanges glances with his partner, the boatholder, again, as he adjusts his BlueBlockers higher on the bridge of his nose. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that question,” he says. That’s all he says. I hate it when people don’t answer a question — or answer it by not answering it.

The boatholder is starting to throw me off my mission by drawing me into a conversation about the boat: “This is pretty neat.”

“Thanks,” I mumble, taking off my hat and throwing it disgustedly on the little pine seat that holds the back of the boat together. Jason sits in the front seat fingering his reel, wondering if it would be inappropriate to go ahead and cast again while I’m getting written up.

“This is really neat.‘ you build it from a kit or something?”

“No,” I say, resigning to the ticket now. “I just got some plans out of Wooden Boat magazine and built it with lumberyard stock.”

“Perty cool,” the boatholder continues. The ticket-writer now gets in on the act. “Yeah, this is really neat. You just need to get it registered,” he says in an annoying sing-song voice.
“Well, I know that now,” I assure him.

When the State of Texas finishes its dealings with me, and the fishpigs turn us loose, the one in BlueBlockers gives his final directive: “Now, you need to take this straight back to shore and not bring it out again until it’s registered, okay? You can leave the motor on shore and paddle around in it, or use your sail if you want, but you can’t use the motor.”

“All right,” I mutter.

Discouraged and teased by the lone, early speckled trout, Jason and I head back to shore. Now hungry, we take advantage of our land-locked status and drive to Whataburger for the regular: Whataburger-with-cheese-plain-and-dry, large fries, and a Dr Pepper on the drink, times two. After every bite of his French fries Jason flicks the salt off his fingers.

“Man! I can’t believe you got a ticket!”

“Yep.” I say stoically, then take another swig of Dr Pepper. “’ guess we can fish from the dock, or maybe just wade Freedom Channel.” (The nearest wading spot to the house we dubbed “Freedom Channel” because it was just few dozen yards out from a bayside bar with a P.A. system that seemed to be continuously playing the Freedom Rock compilation album, as seen on TV.)

“I wonder,” Jason starts, then starts again. “He said we could take it back out, right?”

“Yeah, just not with the motor.”

“I wonder how that would work.”

“Yeah, I wonder.”

And so we systematically talk each other into braving the Laguna Madre with nothing but a sail, a rudder, and two fishing poles. After a quick nap, 2 o’clock finds Jason easing down off the dock into the middle seat, the front being occupied now by the mast, which slides down through a hole in the seat and into a “step” that holds the base of the mast in place. A cotter pin that fits through a hole in the mast underneath the seat prevents the mast from popping up out of place. The ice chest, which originally occupied the middle seat, is bumped to shore. If we do catch keepers, we’ll simply have to put them on a stringer and trail it behind the boat. This keeps fish fresher, anyway, we rationalize. To hell with those fishing fascists and their $75 tickets and their police state.

We’ll just do it the old-fashioned way. This’ll be great.

When you’re fishing in the bay, there is a curious optical phenomenon. Unless a fish is within about three feet of your boat, you hardly ever can see it. It’s not that the water is dirty; it’s not. It’s the glare of the light on the surface and the relatively low angle at which you’re looking at it. It turns out that if you can somehow build a platform on your boat, then climb up three to six feet and look down, the water comes alive with forms of all kinds swirling around you. It was time to start building my platform. All my life I had been trying to foulhook truth, just hoping that I would snag it by chance.

Now, it was time I started casting to it.


“Turn a thing inside out, and see what it is.”1
—Marcus Aurelius

That trip back out into the bay to fish with nothing but a sail and a rudder was very much like something else I did around the same time, which is, I started searching, really systematically searching, for the truth.

I suppose I have always had the thought that the truth is down there just beneath the surface, the truth about us.

I have had the thought as I read a theory here and an idea there, that if all the bits of truth were brought under a single roof, I might be able to see myself, see humanity, in something close to a true light, or at least a truer light. My underlying assumption had been that the key to lasting happiness was knowing 1) who we were, and 2) what we were doing here, or supposed to be doing, if anything. Ultimately, like so many before me and so many to come, I sought the meaning of life. A tall order, sure. But what else did I have to do? How many consecutive hours of “reality” television can a person really watch?

In my mind’s eye I saw gallery of scoffing skeptics, postmodern intellectuals who whiled away their lives at smoky sidewalk cafes and in tweedy, rarefied faculty lounges, tsk-ing and hrumph-ing. They said that a fishing expedition for the truth was hopelessly audacious, wastefully naïve, that humans had attempted to get at their essential nature for eons and still we struggled in our own obscurity. Their version of knowledge said: The human — and the universe, for that matter — is too complex to be knowable at all. We are not equipped with sophisticated enough machinery to comprehend ourselves. Let’s call the whole thing off.

There was in modern thinking this growing agnostic streak with regard to, not just God, but everything. It went beyond simple intellectual humility, to claim that we can never really know our nature. I suspected that, if you scratched hard enough, underneath this view you would find fear, a fear that if we look closely enough at ourselves and our history, we may not like what we discover, that we may just be held to account for the messes we make after all.

Steven Pinker concluded his massive tome How the Mind Works by saying that perhaps humans were not designed in a way to be capable of understanding the meaning of life. “Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth.”2 After 600 pages of dissecting the workings of the brain, when he got to the ultimate meaning of life, he threw up his hands, shrugged, and walked away.

Was this ignorance, willful ignorance, really bliss?

One of the world’s most powerful exponents of the idea that we can never know our nature was the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who spent his whole professional life promoting the idea that it was impossible for man really to know anything. (I’ve never understood people who are passionate about nihilism. If nothing makes sense and nothing matters, why waste energy writing and talking about it?) At last, his nihilism having hobbled his intellect, Hume became despondent:

The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me and heated my brain that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning and can look upon no opinion even as more probable than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence and to what condition shall I return? …

I am confounded by all these questions and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed in the deepest darkness and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty?3

Intellectual agnosticism — the belief that it is impossible to know anything — was nowadays equated with intellectual humility, subtlety, and sophistication, when in fact it seemed to me the height of anti-intellectualism. It was an affront to the spirit of human achievement.
In short, it was for quitters.

Maybe the naysayers in the peanut gallery were right, but I had to see for myself. Maybe they were wrong. After all, a lot of people had found valid answers to the question of who we were. A bit of truth here, a morsel there, sometimes a whole chunk at once. I simply started to wonder, what might be the good in picking those pieces up, those boulders, clods, and pebbles, and pressing them into a single form — a comprehensive theory of the human?

As I began to work with these components or dimensions, I began to wonder just how concrete I could make them. Could the interior contours of the human be represented with charts and graphs? Could the soul itself be, in some crude way, mapped?

Did I want to demystify the human experience? Certainly the human was more complex than we could ever know in absolute detail, I thought, in this and probably any generation. But the goal of demystification was a noble one, not to explain away, but to explain. Not to disenchant the human being, but to know ourselves more deeply, to uncover knowledge that would enchant us with our world more than ever before. Two of the noblest and wisest words ever written had been inscribed near the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece: “Know thyself.” I wanted to take another stab at this, one of the oldest injunctions in our history.

So, back at home in my study, also known as the extra bedroom, I got out my easel, a whiteboard and black marker, and started to draw lines. The lines became geometric planes, which then became fields. The graphs got more and more complex as I kept thinking of things that I knew had to plug in somewhere. I wanted to expand into three dimensions, but it became too hard to draw. So I drove to Toys R Us one Saturday morning and bought six tubs of Play-doh and a large tub of Tinker Toys — staples of my childhood, then went to work pressing those components together, spinning the object around to look at it from every side, top and bottom. Thinking, thinking. What was I leaving out? How did this one impulse intersect with that other?

I felt like humans of our age had been given an enormous head-start by all the speculation and discovery that had come before. But we’d also been given a handicap, and that was that to get to the truth, we had to wade through an inordinate amount of nonsense — absurd proclamations from intellectual and spiritual midgets who were held up right alongside those of the giants on whose shoulders Newton famously stood. Now I had to separate out a few years of wheat from centuries of chaff — extract a ream of sense diluted by tenfold reams of arrogant or superstitious nonsense.

Then there was the sheer volume of information, which had done a curious thing to us. There was more information extant than ever in the history of our civilization, and yet, were we wiser for it? The libraries of the world overflowed with millions of books on every conceivable topic. Electronic media now brought those books to us instantly. But this fact only gave me a feeling of intellectual inadequacy — the impression that there was so much out there that I couldn’t even make a dent in it in a lifetime of ravenous study. It was spitting in the ocean to run over here and learn to play violin, then scurry over there and learn irregular Spanish verbs, and scamper off in a third direction to learn 8th century British history. I was blessed by so much information, and yet cursed by that same quantity. What was the big picture?! What huge, crucial element of life was I missing from being distracted by the flotsam of this modern information ocean?

The discovery of the process of evolution had conditioned us to think that, in all matters, later was better. I also sensed an arrogance in modernity that seemed to stem from our technological progress, as if to say that because we now had perfected the inside-the-shell egg scrambler, our philosophers must be closer to truth than those who lived in times before the inside-the-shell egg scrambler.

I had the notion that much of the best stuff in philosophy, the purest truth, was stated very early on, and since those days, much of philosophy had been an exercise in muddying up the waters, or sophomorically claiming that it is foolish, even wrong, to even ask the Great Questions in the first place. Why were so many of the purest truths stated so early on? Because early philosophers were working on the most basic questions and were starting with all they had, common sense, intuition. Common sense and curiosity will get a person a long way; if he or she is patient, it will get them most of the way.

I concluded that the true task of our age was to sort the worthy ideas and beautiful achievements from the trivial and base.

When I looked at the human, I saw a mass of seeming contradictions, wondrous phenomena, and mystery. Surely we were hopelessly complex creatures. Emotions, reflexes, instincts, ethics, habits, bodies, minds, sensations, trances, perceptions, consciences, dreams, personalities, visions, archetypes, appetites, addictions, and perhaps even souls. On and on the list of descriptions and phenomena went, seemingly without end, and so often without apparent reason.

We were complex creatures, indeed the most complex creatures we knew of. And yet, did it necessarily follow that we were unknowable? The earth was a complex place, and yet we had come to know it, and at an impressively high level — to identify its continents and oceans, and on those continents, its forests and mountains and desserts. And in those forests, the plants and animals. And in those animals, their organs, and biochemicals, and the molecules of the chemicals, and atoms of the molecules, and the quarks of the atoms.

Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman naturalist, wrote, “Indeed, what is there that does not appear marvelous when it comes to our knowledge for the first time? How many things, too, are looked upon as quite impossible until they have been actually effected?” That was it — the chest-out, stomach-in, no-whining spirit I had to adopt at the outset if I was to stand any chance of crossing this ocean of information, letting the trivia and minutiae of life float harmlessly to either side of the bow, and landing on that beachhead of edifying knowledge, of Truth.

The first step was getting organized. I pictured myself walking into a new job and being ushered to my office. When my new boss opened the door, the room was heaped with dozens of seemingly random stacks of paper. “Good luck,” he said, as he turned and coolly walked back to his corner office with adjoining executive washroom.

What would be my first step? I would start through the piles of paper and sort them into a manageable number of categories. Once I had sorted the characteristics into stacks, then I could throw out the duplicates, spot the gaps, and start to see how the rest of it fit together.


Thanks for reading! The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder: A Search for the Boundaries of the Body, Mind, and Soul is available here.
Table of Contents

1 Fishing ………………………….. 1
2 Sailing ………………………… 13
3 Building the Hull ………………….. 31
4 Raising the Sail ……………………. 41
5 Sail Problems …………………….. 55
6 The Rudder and the Night…………….63
7 Primordial Urges…………………..81
8 Things in the Shallows, Things in the Deep….95
9 The Spiral………………………115
10 Losing the Rudder………………….123
11 Decision Time……………………133
12 The Light……………………….147
13 And the Lighthouse…………………163
14 Facing the Deep……………………183
15 The Harbor Master…………………197
16 How Things Ended…………………205


Back Cover:
“Avrel Seale’s book is a thoughtful and compelling consideration of what it means to be both human and spiritual. Sailing — and a real, nearly fatal sailing fiasco — is the metaphor for a gentle yet intelligent search for the meaning of life in the modern world. How the author measures his life at the beginning of this search is quite different from how he describes it at the end. The wonder of this book is the extraordinary journey in between.”

—James Kunetka, Author of Oppenheimer and Warday


On October 11, 1998, Avrel Seale climbed into his homemade sailboat with a friend to go fishing in the Laguna Madre, the wide bay between South Padre Island and Port Isabel, Texas. Through the peril and the beauty of the next 15 hours, he would live out an allegory of his life, both his past and his future. And through the metaphor of sailing, he would discover the three irreducible dimensions of human existence — the hull, the sail, and the rudder.

With a mixture of storytelling, theory, humor, and spiritual exploration, The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder builds on the work of thinkers from ancient to modern times in an audacious quest for a unified theory of human life. Seale’s destination, it turns out, is as close as the boat he’s sitting in. Through the workings of the hull, the sail, and the rudder, he learns that our bodies, minds, and souls can be defined by the different functions they perform as well as by their differing internal structures, and that the unique way those three fields intersect in every person creates our identities.

Seale supports his theory with vignettes from his own life — from a quirky childhood, to a partying and protracted adolescence, to the birth of his first child and his embarkment on a life of true responsibility and deeper meaning.

The Tree – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – “The Tree”

We pass them daily, here and there, occasionally awed by the showier of their number but mostly taking them in subconsciously, as background to the more mobile elements of our world.

We cut them down by the millions for chairs and tables and newspapers and junk mail. In life and in death, they serve us in every conceivable way. They sacrificed themselves to allow us our earliest accomplishment, the prehistoric campfire that gave us warmth and kept the blackness of the night at bay. They provided the most precious symbols of our religions: the Ark of the Covenant — made from acacia. The Bodhi tree — the sacred fig under which the Buddha received enlightenment. The Burning Bush. The Cross. From this lofty station they have served, and all the way down to toilet paper. At birth we are laid in a cradle made from their yield, and at death, into a coffin of the same. Our lives are intertwined as much as any two life forms’ could be, never mind how lopsided the relationship has thus far been.

Some among us appreciate them. Some have made studying them, saving them, or planting them their lives’ work.

But perhaps most significantly, we use them as symbols of ourselves. We plant them to commemorate births, and deaths, of our own kind. This is done out of a vague recognition of the nobility that planting a tree is an act that will outlive us, and yet, even if it is a long-term investment, it nevertheless is one that can be appreciated in the seasons of one’s own life.

But I am deeply suspicious that there is more to this habit of planting trees to commemorate birth and death, a deeper connection. It is as if we recognize at a gut level that a single tree is a physical reminder of a single human being, that over and above the fact that our lives are so inextricably linked, the tree is a silent stand-in for a human soul.

Consider. Though most are larger than we are, they nonetheless exist on a more-or-less human scale. They have arms, and occasionally legs. They have personality — stately or gnarly, thorny or fruity, and infinite combinations of all these and other traits. And, like us, they have individuality. Though they have classifications and varied types, they each are unique specimens. No two are the same — the patterns of their bark no less unique than a fingerprint.

These connections and similarities seem to be more than coincidental, more than a convenient metaphor onto which we can project certain features of our own nature only to cast them off when the metaphor no longer fits, latching on to some other object in nature or science.

No, rather, I believe that the relationship between humans and trees is deep beyond anything we can imagine, that it is profound, the similarities infinite, and the parallels, divinely designed. Here is what I mean.

The universe, by definition (“uni”) is one, a single thing. And yet, insofar as the human experience is concerned, it seems to exist in two parts, like two sides of a coin. It is unified, a single thing, as a coin, and yet has two vantage points, two distinct experiences. One part is material, the other spiritual. A suitable metaphor for these two worlds, which are nonetheless one, is that the material world is like the earth under our feet, while the spiritual world is the air around and over us. One is solid, tangible, and obvious — you can stomp on it; the other is invisible and subtle, but no less real and certainly no less essential to life. They are distinct, but linked.

Everything in this material world is a reflection — an analog — of something in the spiritual world. Some have said that the physical plane is merely a reflection of the spiritual plane, or is something akin to shadows being thrown from light and objects in the spiritual realm. Another way to state it is that the physical world is an emanation of the spiritual world, that the whole universe itself is simply an emanation of the Mind of God.

In the material world or world of nature, one poignant sign or symbol of God is clearly the sun, which created the Earth by first donating a part of itself and then continuously sustaining every organism on it through its constant flow of matchless energy. (Perhaps this explains why primitive man, with his more childlike, simplistic view of the cosmos, so often worshiped the sun as God Himself, his young consciousness not yet able to grasp the metaphoric nature of the physical world.)

If one sign of God in nature is the sun, then the corresponding sign of the human spirit in nature is the tree. Consider: The tree is rooted in the material world, and yet, as it grows toward the sun, it becomes ever more glorious, reaching out to the sun, into the heavens above its earthly and earthy beginnings to fulfill its potential, the destiny written in its acorn, its intrinsic majesty. When its lowest branches, the ones closest to the material world, are pruned away, its energy and nutrients are forced into the higher branches, and as the tree grows taller, closer to the ultimate source of its life, it grows inestimably more majestic than even it was in the wild.

The tree can never be the sun. Indeed, it can never even touch the sun. It will always be a tree. But the closer to the sun it grows, the more perfect and glorious a tree it will be. It can never attain a station greater than what it was created to be, but it can attain perfections within that station, and this is what its Creator must have intended.

The physical and spiritual worlds are different in one respect: one is obvious and easily observable, the other, largely mysterious to our limited perceptions. But if the obvious physical world and the mysterious spiritual world are reflections of each other, then it stands to reason that we could use the natural world to unlock the mysteries of the unseen spiritual world. We can use nature as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decode the subtler reality that is the spiritual world. Growth and decay. Light and darkness. Morning, afternoon, and evening. The cycle of the seasons. The parallels between the single organism and the collective species. All of these broad phenomena have their spiritual parallels, or more likely, are themselves merely illustrations of spiritual realities, physical conditions that are built on a mind-boggling scale and over a cosmic timeframe for our benefit that we might learn from them.

In fact, nature seems to have been created for two purposes, one following the other like a launch rocket followed by a booster. In the first place, nature has arisen and proliferated in diversity in such a way that it has, finally, produced a being capable of relating, in some small way, to its Creator. And each creature, no matter how bizarre or seemingly disconnected to us it might seem, nevertheless has played and is playing a part in the vast and subtle web of life to which we owe our existence.

Now that spiritual consciousness has arisen in the form of the human, we can see that these creatures also can be seen to exist as living metaphors for us. I believe the web of life, whether we see a given part of it or whether that part remains in isolation, never glimpsed by the eyes of humans, nevertheless exists that we might grasp its metaphors and employ those to our improvement. The web of life is a book that has taken thirteen billion years to write, the last four billion on earth, so that we now might have the honor and the duty of reading it. (And, it should be added, this thirteen billion years represents only the latest edition, and the local edition, for, if the universe is an emanation from the mind of God, it follows that the universe can have no beginning or end, either spatially or temporally.)

Consider how the nobility of the horse or the steadfastness of the dog or the majesty of the eagle inspires us to strive for our higher nature. Who is to say these magnificent beasts were not created for that very purpose?

But let us not wax sentimental about a postcard, arm-chair version of “nature,” glossing over how brutally indifferent it can appear. Nature also puts on display for us the gluttony of the pig and the foul, opportunistic viciousness of the gila monster, all perhaps, to warn us away from our lower nature by the revulsion they elicit in us. These too are reflections of the spiritual world, stand-ins for parallel spiritual realities. Nature exists not only for the positive examples, but for the negative examples it yields. While nature in and of itself cannot really be bad, there are behaviors and phenomena we witness that trigger feelings in us of disgust, pity, fear, revulsion. The nature of the condor, the lion, and the blue whale is also the nature of the maggot, dung beetle, and mole rat.

Isn’t this a bit egotistical, anthrocentric, that everything was created simply to facilitate our appearance on the scene and then to aid in our spiritual education — the entire cosmos as an audio/visual aid? Perhaps. And yet, what is the alternative explanation? If our physical world does not exist to serve to build, then inform, then astound consciousness, what function does its creation serve? We have yet to hear an alternative answer, other than the deeply unsatisfying “none.” And why would we have been given the instinct to search for meaning if, at the end of the trail, none were there to be found? Even a naturalistic, evolutionary worldview argues for the existence of ultimate meaning, because we’ve obviously been given an instinct to seek it out, and evolution itself tells us that instincts don’t develop for no reason.

Creation is an emanation from the Mind of God. And it seems to exist for two principal reasons: as a platform from which spiritual life eventually would emerge and as a virtually infinite pool of metaphors to further inform that spiritual life.

If we accept these premises, then a vast reservoir of spiritual knowledge awaits us. So let us turn now to the business of decoding the spiritual truth about ourselves by considering more closely the life of that organism that is the natural world’s sublime reflection of the human spirit, the tree.

The Tree is available here.

Table of Contents

1 The Tree ……………………. 1
2 The Acorn…………………..13
3 Roots………………………19
4 The Pruninghook……………..27
5 The Arborist…………………37
6 The Forest…………………..43
7 The Orchard…………………63
8 Tree of Life…………………..79
9 Greater Heights……………….85

Epilogue: The Sister City of Our Souls . . . 91
A Note on the Source of Ideas ………99

Selected Essays

Seven Steps to Heaven on Earth ……101
Science, Religion, and the Patterns
of Creation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
From Barbarity to Civilization:
The Transitions of Societies . . . .135
The Meaning of Life ………………145